Tag: musical theater

Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story

For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”

But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”

  • I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • I’m the guy who writes hybrid.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • By the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • There is no such thing as history or then and now.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent.

    Ricky Ian Gordon

It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.

“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”

Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.

“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way Of Enveloping A Story
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Ricky Ian Gordon
April 19, 2021—1:30pm EDT via Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 2: The Performers

A person in a blue shirt photographer on a street

Introduction

If you’ve met one trans person, you’ve met one trans person. Which is to say: If you want to glimpse the diversity of trans experience, you need to talk to a lot of different trans people.

So that’s what I did. The artists interviewed for this article[1] have performed everywhere from Germany to San Francisco, in grand opera houses and black box theaters, in revivals of standard repertoire and world premieres; they are different ages, at different points in their careers; they have different genders, and different ethnicities. Their voices capture a broad cross-section of contemporary trans singing theater communities. Where they disagree, they illuminate important tensions. Where they agree, they point to robust patterns that transcend the specifics of any one production and the artistic personalities involved. Let’s hear what they have to say. (I strongly encourage you to read the first part of this series before proceeding, as it defines many of the terms thrown around in the discussion below.)

Varying Experiences: Location, Medium, and Scene

The constant decontextualized churn of social media can obscure the very real differences between different places. In the general wash of Twitter, for example, it’s easy to miss the fact that one of the more virulent strains of pseudo-intellectual trans-antagonism[2] comes primarily from the UK, and is relatively scarce among US intelligentsia.[3] To get a feel for what it’s like in a place, you still do have to go there.

“When I’ve done work in the UK, there have been discussions about my transness that just don’t happen in Germany,” said Holden Madagame, a trans tenor currently living in Germany. “Nobody cares in Germany, for better and for worse.” Lucia Lucas, a transfeminine baritone who has also worked internationally, has found distinctions within countries as well: “As far as audience reaction is concerned, it totally depends on the region. Even in Germany, if I do something in Karlsruhe versus Wuppertal, I’m going to have a completely different audience reaction.”

Holden Madagame (Photo by Amar Productions)

Holden Madagame (Photo by Amar Productions)

Unsurprisingly, given its size, the United States has similar regional differences. Aneesh Sheth, a transfeminine performer who has worked both on stage and on screen, noted differences between NYC and LA: “LA is very focused on gender equality, so it’s very much about the gender binary, closing the wage gap, and uplifting women in the wake of the #MeToo movement,[4] and that’s all incredibly important, of course, but transness isn’t a thing there in the way that it is in New York.”

Actors may feel drawn to one medium over another based on how trans-friendly the workplaces are.

Even within one city, actors may feel drawn to one medium over another based on how trans-friendly the workplaces are. Samy Nour Younes is a transmasculine actor who has worked in both musical theater and television, and he says that “film and TV are making room for me faster than theater is, but I want to be in theater.” This has been a fairly recent development. Two years ago, he wrote an op-ed about the lack of room for diverse trans representation in theater and film; now, he says, “Film and TV have quickly proven me wrong, and theater has not budged. My struggles are still the same as they were two years ago.” CN Lester, a London-based trans performer, composer, and impresario who has been producing a regular showcase of trans talent since 2011, has seen audiences change: “General audiences definitely know more about trans issues than they did then, and (for our particular audience demographic) seem to care more—but [Transpose] also attracts more hostility now that it’s bigger.”

Other artists drew distinctions between different kinds of theatrical spaces. “Every Monday, I’m at Club Cumming [a queer cabaret venue] until 4 a.m. because it’s a space where I don’t have to explain anything that I’m doing. When you’re on that stage, it actually doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is ‘castable’ or has any capitalistic value. Having space to do that is so important for me as a performer,” says Jordan Ho, a genderfluid nonbinary transfeminine artist who has performed everything from opera arias to experimental devised works. Lucas expands on the kind of artistic liberation that can be found in performance spaces outside of the commercial mainstream: “Queer theater is where I get better. When you don’t have an entire opera machine relying on you to be perfect when you walk in the door, there’s more space to play.” Sheth discussed a particularly liberatory experience at an indie theater festival in NYC, then grew rueful: “I don’t know if that would ever translate into a larger commercial space.”

Jordan Ho (Photo by Daniel Potes)

Jordan Ho (Photo by Daniel Potes)

These kinds of out-of-the-mainstream shows tend to go up on shoestring budgets with little rehearsal, which means performers can’t sustain careers doing only this kind of work. Venturing into more mainstream spaces, however, often means taking on work that handles trans issues badly. “[Trans actors] need money,” Younes said. “I’ve taken plenty of jobs that were objectionable because I needed to pay my rent.” Breanna Sinclairé, an operatic soprano who made headlines singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at a Major League Baseball game in 2015, echoed the sentiment: “I’ve done gigs where I’ve been respected, and I’ve done gigs where I have not been respected. But at the end of the day, we’re professional singers; we just have to keep going.” Most of the performers I spoke to expressed similar sentiments of resigned fatalism, sentiments aptly summarized by soprano Alex Bork: “I’d rather take [a gig I don’t like] than not be working at all.”

Playing “Cis”

While most characters aren’t explicitly cis, most casting directors, audiences, and so on assume these characters are.

Because roles explicitly for trans performers are still rare, stepping into these mainstream spaces often means playing roles that weren’t written with trans people in mind. While most of these characters aren’t explicitly cis, the historical (and ongoing) erasure of trans people means that most directors, casting directors, audiences, and so on assume these characters are cis. This will be discussed at greater length in the final installment of this series, but is worth flagging here.

Unsurprisingly, many of the people I spoke with don’t fully trust cis directors to make such roles trans. “I plead with directors all the time, ‘Please don’t make this a trans story,’” Lucas says, of playing roles like Don Giovanni that are usually cast as cis men. “I don’t say this, but I just don’t think they’re going to be able to handle it well.” Sinclairé also suggested taking a circumspect approach: “I just want to be hired as a female singer. I’m a musician first, trans second. It doesn’t always have to be ‘trans opera singer’ all the time.”

Breanna Sinclairé (Photo by JP Lor)

Breanna Sinclairé (Photo by JP Lor)

That said, sometimes actors take their own initiative. “I always secretly put myself into [whatever role I’m playing],” confides Esco Jouléy, a nonbinary actor working in New York. Marques Hollie, a nonbinary opera singer and writer, talked about finding resonances between their own experiences and the Baker in Into the Woods. “The Baker really wrestles with a lot of his patrilineal trauma; he has this really complex, rich inner life.” Coincidentally, Younes recently played Jack in Into the Woods, and while neither they nor the production team explicitly discussed playing Jack as a young trans boy, “there were people who came to the show and read it that way. And if they want to, I think that’s a valid interpretation.”

Indeed, several performers described this as an opportunity, not a challenge. “I honestly can’t think of any specific problems navigating the differences between me and the characters I play,” Lester said. “That’s the challenge and joy of performance.” Madagame sounded almost playful: “I usually don’t discuss it explicitly with the director, I just make certain choices and see how they react. Sometimes they ask me to do something else, but usually there’s a little bit of compromise.”[5]

These roles raise one of the biggest issues of trans representation in singing theater, the issue that poses a unique challenge for these works compared to works without music: gender and vocal range.

Gender and Vocal Range

Kristofer Eckelhoff is a trans voice teacher in NYC, and he is constantly grappling with the inadequacy of standard vocal terminology when it comes to trans singers. “I’m still trying to develop a terminology that works.” Standard labels like soprano or baritone have strongly gendered connotations that may alienate or affirm. “For trans men who are early on in their transition, they may not like the term head voice, but they might like the word falsetto because it’s a more gendered term.” Meanwhile, nonbinary students may have even fewer options. “It’s tricky. I don’t have a blanket way to talk about it. My nonbinary students don’t really like any of the terms; it’s easier to use numerical note names like C4 to D5. But it’s still messy. It’s really important to address the individual singer.”

Kristofer Eckelhoff (Photo by Taylor Eirá Lear)

Kristofer Eckelhoff (Photo by Taylor Eirá Lear)

That’s harder to do when you’re writing an open casting call. As a workaround for this, Aiden Feltkamp proposed a new vocal categorization system in this very publication. Their whole series is a worthwhile read, but I confess that I find their proposal rather fiddly—the more boundaries you have, the more boundary squabbles—and my default, as a composer, is increasingly to use note names to delineate the ranges of parts that I write.

“The piano doesn’t have a gender.”

It will come as no surprise that trans singers aren’t particularly fond of linking vocal range with gender. “The piano doesn’t have a gender,” Jouléy quipped, noting the breadth of its range. Lucas sees her different vocal registers and colors—she’s working to develop her contralto—as tools to illuminate characters’ emotional states: “If we’re doing The Danish Girl,[6] and it’s the first party where Lili goes out presenting female, maybe we can play with where that sits in the voice.” For her part, Sinclairé sees vocal range as an individual matter. “It’s in your body”, she said. “You work with what you have. I know trans women who sing soprano and develop that, and there are trans women who like to sing in the lower register and develop that. It’s who you are as a person; that’s authentic singing.”

There is an important asymmetry here: testosterone lowers the human voice, but estrogen does not raise it. This means that AMAB trans people can begin taking hormones without having to interrupt their careers to retrain,[7] but AFAB trans people cannot.

“Being a transmasc person, you lose a lot of your voice in your first year on hormones,” Eckelhoff said. Many of his students come to him in this first year, and he reassures them that it will be O.K., their voices will come back. “But this is where people run into problems with cis teachers, because teachers assume they’ve ruined their voice.”

This resistance from cis teachers can reach dangerous extremes. Eckelhoff told of one student whose teacher forced him to delay starting hormones until after graduation because said teacher didn’t want to deal with the changes that hormones would cause. In other words, this was a teacher forcing a student to postpone potentially life-saving medical treatment so the teacher’s job would be easier. This is not an exaggeration. The lifetime suicide attempt rate for trans men in the US is 46%, compared to a baseline rate of 4.6% in the general population. Hormone therapy is strongly and consistently correlated with a marked improvement in mental health for trans people who pursue it. Individual trans people may, of course, decide not to start hormones because of the changes hormones will cause to their voice, but it is completely inappropriate for a voice teacher to force this decision on them.

Testosterone lowers the human voice, but estrogen does not raise it.

At the end of the day, however, a human voice is a human voice. “Trans voices are really not that different than cis voices,” Eckelhoff affirms. This goes for the ranges trans people sing in post-transition, but it also goes for the variety that exists among cis performers. Every singer I talked to for this piece mentioned countertenors, contraltos, or both. “Bea Arthur is my favorite baritone,” Ho joked, discussing the roles xe’s studied during xyr vocal training[8], “I’ve been going through the Sondheim canon and learning all the female roles—it’s really interesting to see how many cis women in the musical theater canon were actually just baritones.”

Harassment, Assimilation, and Other Unpleasantries

When discussing the question of gender and vocal range, Sinclairé told the story about singing for a composer who had assumed that she was a countertenor, not a soprano. “When I opened my mouth and sang, he was speechless.”

That encounter ultimately ended well, but the interactions between cis and trans artists can become extremely fraught. “I was in a master class once where someone leaked information about me beforehand,” Bork recounts, “And [the guest teacher] spent the entire class berating me and telling me no director would ever cast me. Afterwards, I had to take a taxi home—I couldn’t walk.” She also discussed several instances of appalling treatment from fellow cast members, including deliberate misgendering and riffs on stock tropes of trans people as sexual predators. Sinclairé expressed frustration at techies during sound checks: “Some of them don’t think I’m a serious singer, so they like to mess with the electronics. It’s weird subliminal stuff that happens.”

Alex Bork (Photo by Simon Bennett)

Alex Bork (Photo by Simon Bennett)

Sometimes, the overall atmosphere leads to self-censorship. “There’s a rigidity of gender presentation in auditions,” Madagame said. “I have privilege coming out the ass, but I still feel it in small ways: I can’t have certain hairstyles, I can’t dye my hair, I can’t have nearly as many tattoos as I would like. All of these things that queer and trans people gravitate towards, aesthetically. You’re forced into this aesthetic, and it’s really uncomfortable.” These queer and trans aesthetic markers may seem trivial, but in a world where growing up trans is still such an alienating experience, and where trans people still have to fight so relentlessly to present outwardly as we know ourselves to be, being cut off from visual flags of communal belonging and forced into a rigid gender box can be a soul-crushing experience.

“There’s a rigidity of gender presentation in auditions.”

Given all this, it’s no wonder many choose not to stick it out. “It is devastating how much talent there is that no one’s going to see,” Younes said. For all the perspectives I have tried to gather here, there are so many more that we will never have.

Without impugning the abilities, experience, or work ethic of any trans performers, it’s also true that these barriers to trans careers in singing theater—clueless or hostile teachers, antagonistic workplaces, discrimination based on nonadherence to gender stereotypes, the lack of trans roles and the unwillingness of cis casting directors to consider trans performers for roles traditionally assumed to be cis—mean that trans performers will often have less formal training and scanter résumés than cis performers at the equivalent career stage. “I know that not every company has time to teach everyone all these things,” Ho commented. “But if a trans performer doesn’t have the music theory background or needs help learning the music, it’s worth it to teach them.”

This is a delicate point, but it’s worth pressing. Allying yourself with trans communities doesn’t just mean tweaking the language of your casting calls, it also means giving us material resources. There are real inequities in the educational and professional opportunities that trans people receive; redressing those inequities is an inextricable part of bringing our stories to the stage responsibly.

That said, transphobia is obviously not the only form of marginalization, and it is irresponsible to set about redressing it without also redressing other unjust inequities, many of which overlap in mutually reinforcing ways.

Intersections[9]

Younes, who is of mixed Lebanese and Puerto Rican descent, feels that their race and queerness are often forced to be at odds by the limited visions of those doing the writing and casting. “For Latino and Arab men,” he said, “There’s still a portrait of hypermasculinity that theater conforms to, so much so that I don’t get those roles either. It’s like I’m too brown for being trans and too queer for being brown.” Sheth, meanwhile, feels that her transness has overshadowed her ethnicity. “When people talk about me, it’s always about my transness. When people are talking about hiring Aneesh, they’re talking about hiring someone who’s trans. It’s very rarely a conversation of ‘We’re also bringing in someone who’s South Asian; what does that do for our script? For the trans South Asian community?’ There’s a whole other piece of me that’s being excluded from this conversation.”

Aneesh Sheth (Photo by Billy Bustamante)

Aneesh Sheth (Photo by Billy Bustamante)

This emphasis on transness over race can fly directly in the face of an individual’s own perspective. Sinclairé was adamant: “African American, Asian performers, we’re still not getting hired as much as our white counterparts. I feel like that’s the first barrier that needs to be broken down, before we even get to the trans issue.”

For others, issues of race and gender can’t be so cleanly separated. “I’m an average US size for white people,” Bork explained, “But beauty-standard-wise, the representation of Asian people in the West is skinnier, and so even if I’m the same size as my colleague on stage, people are going to call me out for being tall or fat first. And I’ve had that happen before, people telling me that I’m not castable because I’m not feminine or demure. And they’re not saying that to my colleagues who are the exact same proportions as me but who just happen to be white.”

“A lot of gatekeepers are not prepared to welcome talent outside their comfort zone.”

These critiques point to deep structural issues, many of which are exacerbated by the reliance on wealthy white donors who actively resist structural change. “Opera and classical music are still very much driven by older white men,” Hollie says. “A lot of these gatekeepers don’t know how to behave and aren’t trying to be better people. And they’re not prepared to welcome talent outside their comfort zone.” Younes sees similar dynamics at play in musical theater: “There are a lot of trans creators making work, but that stuff doesn’t get the big commercial funding. I love theater, but it hasn’t aged well. The boards haven’t changed for decades, they’re beholden to their aging pool of subscribers who can complain and pull their donations if they don’t like something, so they hew towards the more conservative plays. The most daring thing they can do is put an interracial gay couple on stage. And for me, the product of an interracial couple, I’m like, ‘That’s not daring, that’s life.’”

Marques Hollie (J Demetrie Photography)

Marques Hollie (J Demetrie Photography)

But Younes also sees these disparities being perpetuated within the queer theater community itself. “If you’ve opened a door, don’t shut it behind you. There are a lot of LGB people in theater who have done that. That’s not me trying to pit myself against them, or to say that it’s easy—I know quite a few people who are not out as gay in theater—but I also know a lot of cis gay people who got what they wanted and shut the door behind them for everybody else. I would hope that a win for one of us is a win for all, but don’t forget to take the rest of us with you.”

Some Rehearsal Room Advice

The previous sections have focused on problems, many of them large structural problems that will not be swiftly solved. Even so, gentle reader, there are steps you can take to make your rehearsal rooms more welcoming to trans individuals.

“It’s a matter of respect, respecting the artists in all ways,” Sinclairé said, when I asked what makes for a welcoming rehearsal room. One key way of respecting trans people is using the right pronouns. To do this, of course, requires knowing what the right pronouns are. The quickest way to be certain of this is to ask, and so the practice of sharing your pronouns along with your name at the start of a rehearsal is becoming increasingly standard in queer-centric spaces.

By this point, it won’t surprise you to learn that not all trans people are on board with this.[10] For some, being able to share pronouns in this way is essential. “I really like the pronoun thing,” Ho said, “And I like the ritual of it at the start of every rehearsal, just a check in. Because there are days where I’m so tired I don’t even want pronouns, just use my name today.” But having everyone go around and share their pronouns may put trans people on the spot, forcing them to decide whether to out themselves in a room full of strangers or lie about their gender and resign themselves to being misgendered in the rehearsal process. Sharing pronouns when there’s only one trans person in the room[11] can also single out and other that trans person, as Jouléy describes: “There should always be a question about pronouns. But if I’m the only one who’s going to be using ‘different’ pronouns, and you’re only doing it for me, I don’t need it! I know I look different, people are going to see that and know something’s up. If they have a question, they can ask.” A reasonable middle ground, I think, is to provide an opportunity for people to share their pronouns if they want without mandating that anyone do so. Respectfully asking any trans people involved in your production in advance how they’d like you to handle this is also a good idea.

Esco Jouléy (Photo by Ronnie Nelson)

Esco Jouléy (Photo by Ronnie Nelson)

If you need to be flexible in how you approach sharing pronouns, you may need to be even more so when it comes to making musical accommodations. As Eckelhoff pointed out, these kinds of adjustments are hardly unique to trans performers: “Tenors sing castrato roles down the octave all the time. Why can’t we do that with other roles?” Sheth called attention to accommodations cis people regularly make in re-arranging ensemble tracks to better fit their range: “It might take a little extra arranging work that people don’t want to do, but when it comes to cis people who need to jump staff lines, it’s very easy. Then when it comes to trans people, suddenly they get very in their head about it, like it confuses them somehow.”

If you need to be flexible in how you approach sharing pronouns, you may need to be even more so when it comes to making musical accommodations.

When octave shifts and re-tracking ensemble numbers isn’t enough, you may have to change a key or two. Indeed, it’s probably best to include options from the get-go. “When you’re composing, just write alternative stuff,” Lucas suggests. Madagame explains that in the development process for Good Country,[12] composer Keith Allegretti prepared three alternate versions of Madagame’s role in different ranges. “Be flexible, don’t be fussy,” Madagame advised those planning to write for trans singers. Lester had some tough love for composers who feel changing keys or vocal lines infringes on their vision: “As a composer with synesthesia, I’m not trying to dismiss the importance of specific keys and timbres. But, ultimately, the composer is only one part of the musical whole.”

Lucia Lucas (Photo by Josh New)

Lucia Lucas (Photo by Josh New)

Everyone stressed the need to have more than one trans person in the room. “There needs to be a trans voice therapist, a trans vocal coach, a trans pianist present,” Sinclairé insisted. “I always look at the team,” said Jouléy, when asked about how to decide whether to join a new project. “Who’s working on it? Because when I come into the room, I don’t want any problems.”

The presence of other trans artists can make it easier for trans actors to speak up when they feel trans issues are being mishandled, but often more explicit permission is necessary. Hollie explained, “Working with directors, it’s really hard to be That Person. It can be hard to bring these things up.” Madagame said that the most helpful thing was “to have people explicitly say, ‘If you are uncomfortable with something, we want to hear about it so we can solve it.’”

Should Cis People Even Be Writing This?

Inevitably, conversations about including trans people in the rehearsal room circle back to the question of who’s writing these stories to begin with. The performers I spoke to were unanimous in their desire to see trans writers bringing trans stories to the stage; they were much more ambivalent about the role of cis allies.

Younes was the most optimistic. “Given the fact that [trans people] are a minority, it’s going to take cis people writing trans roles for us to see more employment opportunities. Obviously there need to be more opportunities for trans people to have our work produced, but simply based on the numbers, there’s never gonna be enough trans creators for the body of trans people who need to be working.” Bork was more hesitant: “This isn’t a hard rule, but I’m more cautious when people who aren’t from a particular community approach me about a project without explicitly saying they’re not from the community.”

These hesitations were often deeply rooted in having seen too many attempts from misguided would-be allies. “I’d rather not quote some of the lyrics I’ve seen,” Ho vented, “Because I understand that new musical theater writers are trying to learn, but like, learn faster.” Lester pointed out that many of these projects are bad art: “The main problem [with cis-led trans works] is that a project will be ‘trans themed’ but have no trans people involved at all. So the story is literally just a cis person’s imagined idea of how trans people live. These kinds of ‘trans’ projects aren’t just politically suspect—they’re artistically played out and stale.”

CN Lester (Photo by Raphaël Neal)

CN Lester (Photo by Raphaël Neal)

Most of the failures that these artists detailed stemmed ultimately from a limited imagination of what trans lives look like, offstage and on. “For some reason, cis writers can’t just write that a character happens to be trans and has characteristics like any other character they would write,” Sheth said. Hollie emphasized more emotional limits: “When it comes to trans representation, a lot of the works that are getting play are rooted in trauma and suffering. What about trans joy?”

“A lot of the works that are getting play are rooted in trauma and suffering. What about trans joy?”

One answer emerged clearly above all others: “I really hope more trans composers come out and compose full-on operas,” Sinclairé said. “That would be amazing.”

The good news is, those composers are out there. In the next installment, we’ll be turning our attention to them.

Further Reading

As with last week’s article, this post only scratches the surface of these conversations. Here are some avenues for further exploration:

Notes


1. Full disclosure: I have worked with several of these artists in the past, and have plans to work with some of them in the future. I write from the perspective of someone who is deeply embedded in this community.


2. The people spouting these views are often called TERFs, or Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists. TERF was originally coined as a technical shorthand for transphobia rooted in radical feminist thought, but is now thrown around pretty freely to refer to anyone who holds any trans-antagonistic position whatsoever, with the predictable dilution of its meaning. This has resulted in a confusing multi-player tug-of-war, with some advocating it be restricted to its erstwhile technical use, some accepting the diluted meaning, some trans-inclusive feminists arguing against it on the grounds that trans-exclusion is inherently unfeminist (a position often built on unfamiliarity with the specific ideology of radical feminism), and TERFs mendaciously claiming the term is a slur. (It is not.)


3. Then again, as was noted in the article linked above, these TERFs have been cited in at least one amicus brief before the US Supreme Court that could make it legal to fire any woman, including a cis woman, for wearing pants, so there’s some trans-Atlantic dialogue going on here.


4. Of course, trans women also experience sexual harassment in entertainment-industry workplaces and steep wage disparities, but there’s no denying that the highest-profile figures in these fights tend to be cis white women, and these women haven’t always been the most adept at including other women, let alone trans men and nonbinary people, in their gender activism.


5. The technical term for an actor bringing their own life experiences to shape a role and make it theirs is, of course, acting.


6. An adaptation-in-process of the film about Lili Elbe, currently slated to be composed by Tobias Picker specifically for Lucas in the title role.


7. Some AMAB trans people, of course, do retrain to sing at a higher pitch, but they won’t necessarily lose access to their lower registers if they do.


8. For a full breakdown of the xe/xem/xyrs pronoun set, see this guide. To practice using it (as well as other pronoun sets that are less familiar to you), go here.


9. This section was largely guided by what my interviewees shared with me, and as such, it deals fairly exclusively with intersections of race and transness. Obviously, other axes of marginalization exist, but many, like class and disability, are frequently invisible, and I did not think it appropriate to ask invasive questions about, for example, people’s legal, medical, and economic histories. The intersections not included here are just as important as the ones that are, but I am afraid I must leave it to others to fully explicate them.


10. Indeed, in the week before I sat down to write this, trans Twitter was consumed with an endless, acrimonious debate over this practice.


11. As will be discussed at greater length below, this is not ideal practice.


12. A chamber opera about the life of Charley Parkhurst, which will be discussed at greater length in next week’s installment.

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting, Part 1: Words, Words, Words

18th century style painting of a group of white men

Introduction

Nothing tests my conviction that cis people can write good trans characters like seeing the trans characters cis people actually write. In all the stories I’ve experienced across all forms of media featuring trans characters written by cis creators, only a handful haven’t been deeply misguided at best, and that number keeps shrinking because the creators who get it right keep coming out as trans.

Operas and musicals are no different. Although there are increasing numbers of trans characters on stage, the quality of that representation remains dispiritingly low. Still, I want to believe that cis people can get it right, albeit with some help. Hence this series.

Over the course of these four articles, I am going to take a deep dive into issues of trans representation on stage, culminating, in the final article, in a how-to guide for cis writers who want to tell trans stories responsibly. Because this guide will, necessarily, be tailored to the societal context it’s being written for, the first three articles will explore that context, beginning, in this article, with a survey of trans language and history before proceeding to a series of interviews with trans performers and writers navigating these issues in their lives and work.

My hope, gentle reader, is that this contextualization will equip you with a robust understanding of the values and stakes at play in telling trans stories responsibly, so that rather than viewing the guide in the final article as an inscrutable diktat for rote regurgitation, you have the tools to adapt it to whatever situations you find yourself in as you pursue your artistic career.

A Trans Vocabulary Primer

If you want to write trans characters from the ground up, you need to understand us.

If you want to cast trans people in your projects, you need to be able to talk about who you’re looking for. If you want to write trans characters from the ground up, you need to understand us, including the language we use to talk about ourselves.

This is a problem, because different trans people have conflicting needs when it comes to language, to the point that some trans people vehemently argue that no one should use the very terms that other trans people insist are crucial to their sense of self, in debates that can be as acrimonious as they are inscrutable to outsiders. Unsurprisingly, these differing linguistic camps are frequently demarcated by lines of age, race, class, geography, and so on, and if you spend much time deeply immersed in these debates, it quickly becomes apparent that you fundamentally cannot separate out trans issues from other kinds of social hierarchies.

As such, the vocabulary framework I’m laying out below is more of a set of least-bad compromises than best practices. This framework is informed both by my years living and interacting with trans communities in Massachusetts, LA, and NYC as well as by the perspectives of English-speaking trans people around the world I have encountered online. Even so, it is necessarily limited and imperfect, and it will become outdated as language evolves. To my cis readers, understand that much nuance is missing from the below, and best practice is always to defer to the trans people in your own community. To my trans readers, I hope you can forgive me if the terms you prefer are omitted by my infelicities and elisions.

Western societies[1] tend to divide people into two big categories: men and women. Sex refers to the physical markers of these categories — genitals, chromosomes, hormone levels, facial hair, and so on — while gender refers to the social ones — hairstyles, clothes, personality traits, and so on.[2] The underlying assumption is that these traits are all binary, coming in two neat, mutually exclusive sets.

Unsurprisingly, reality is more complicated. It’s fairly trivial to point out that social gender cues can be endlessly varied, remixed, and recombined — there are many more than two hairstyles, for example, and knowing a person’s hairstyle doesn’t reliably tell you what clothes they wear — but physical bodies are similarly unruly. For all that trans people are often accused of denying science, it’s those who insist that human bodies fall neatly into two distinct kinds who are ignoring the actual scientific facts of human sexual development.[1]

It’s fairly trivial to point out that social gender cues can be endlessly varied, remixed, and recombined.

The mainstream view sees the gender binary as growing out of the sex binary when, in reality, the relationship between the two is less linear. Doctors, believing in the gender binary, operate, without consent, on intersex newborns (whose bodies match neither the paradigmatic male nor female forms) to force them to conform to one or the other. Parents encourage children they think are boys to eat well and play outdoors while encouraging children they think are girls to watch their weight and stay indoors, with predictable physical effects. Thus, there are ways in which the gender binary gives rise to the very sex binary that people then use to justify the gender binary itself.

Western societies ignore all this. A doctor looks at an ultrasound, sees a penis, and tells the parents they’re having a boy. This process of assigning babies to a gender category based on their genitals leads, in queer circles, to the practice of calling people AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) or AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth).[4] Since the word assigned in this abbreviation leads many people unfamiliar with the underlying conceptual framework to think, not unreasonably, that these terms imply this assignation is random, I prefer to describe this as gender assumed at birth — like many assumptions, the assumption that any given baby with a vagina will grow up to be a woman could be correct, but it’s far from guaranteed.

When this assumption is correct, you have a cis person, someone whose gender matches the gender it was assumed they were when they were born.[5] When this assumption is wrong, you have a trans person, someone whose gender doesn’t match (or doesn’t always or only match) the gender it was assumed they were when they were born. The line between these two categories is fuzzy, and there are many edge cases.[6] But just as it’s useful to talk about the differences between teenagers and adults without being able to pin down a sharp divide between youth and maturity, it’s useful to talk about trans and cis people while acknowledging that actual humans are more complex.

Trans is a broad umbrella that includes both binary people (men and women) and nonbinary people.

In this usage, trans is a broad umbrella that includes both binary people (men and women) and nonbinary people (all other genders, including fluid genders and lack of gender). Nonbinary can itself be used as an umbrella: While some people use it and it alone to describe their gender, others identify with other terms under its broad canopy. Not all nonbinary people think of themselves as trans; this is a developing area where language is extremely in flux and there’s little consensus on standard usage.

As a way of including nonbinary people in discussions of the different experiences of different groups of trans people, people have developed the terms transmasculine and transfeminine (denoting “trans men plus nonbinary people who were assumed to be female at birth” and “trans women plus nonbinary people who were assumed to be male at birth”, respectively), but these terms have their flaws. For starters, not all transmasculine people are masculine, nor all transfeminine people feminine.[7] These terms also erase the experiences that nonbinary people have in common regardless of gender assumed at birth, and any grouping based on gender assumed at birth is guaranteed to alienate some trans people. Still, these terms are in widespread use, and many of the people featured in this series use them as self-descriptors. Language remains an imperfect tool, too clumsy and inexact to do justice to the richness of humanity.

A few final points before we proceed. There are a number of formerly in-vogue terms that are now broadly considered dated at best.[8] For example, it used to be common to refer to (binary) trans people as either Male-To-Female (MTF) or Female-To-Male (FTM). But many trans people feel they were never the gender people assumed they were when they were born, and feel invalidated by this framing. Similarly, terms like biologically female and biologically male should be avoided, as they’re often used to deny trans people’s actual genders.

Natural language being what it is, some shibboleths are profoundly arbitrary. Use transgender and cisgender, not transgendered and cisgendered. Put a space after trans in phrases like trans man; don’t make compound words like transman.[9] There’s no inner logic to this, just as there’s no inner logic to the fact that shortening homosexual to homo is pejorative while shortening bisexual to bi is totally fine. Language is weird like that.

Other terms are more of a grey area: Many trans people use transsexual[10] as a reclaimed self-descriptor, but it usually comes across as stigmatizing when a cis person uses it. Some trans people find terms like female-identifying empowering and welcoming, but many find such terms de-legitimizing. There was a brief window where it was de rigueur to use the label trans*, and some trans people still do this, but general practice has now come around against asterisk.

Three bad things and we’re done: Transmisogyny refers to the combination of transphobia and misogyny that AMAB trans people experience. Misgendering refers to the act of using the wrong pronouns for someone, or using other terms that don’t match a person’s gender. Those who adopt a new name as part of their transition often call their old name their deadname; using this name for them is known as deadnaming, and, as with misgendering, it is absolutely something you should not do.

With this terminology under our belt, we’re finally ready to talk about art.

Trans People in Singing Theater History: A Cursory Sketch

When I initially sketched this section of the article, I planned to give a brief overview of the difficulties of trans history, highlight a few areas in the singing theater[11] past that seem likely to have under-explored trans histories, discuss the failings of several high-profile[12] efforts in recent years, and close with a survey of more successful projects. But as I began interviewing people for later articles in this series, I quickly discovered almost everyone I talked to has been involved in projects I’d never heard of, and these projects frequently defy easy categorization.

Almost everyone I talked to has been involved in projects I’d never heard of, and these projects frequently defy easy categorization.

That’s great news for demonstrating the vitality of trans art, but it rather derailed the original plan. Adequately surveying just the works from the past half-decade now seems like a dissertation project to me, not something that can be satisfactorily done in one half of one article. I hope someone writes that dissertation, but it’s not something I can do right here right now.

I’m still going to give a cursory overview of some (potentially) trans histories as well as the difficulties in uncovering them, both because those histories help illuminate where we are today and because several of my interviewees allude to this past in more and less explicit ways, but when it comes to more recent years, I’m going to hold off on generalizing and opt instead to describe specific projects as needed in the conversations with performers and writers in the next two articles.

Most contemporary frameworks of transness treat gender and sexuality as different things. Historically, this is not how these two facets of human experience were understood. For much of Western history, attraction to women was seen as a necessary component of masculinity. If you weren’t attracted to women, you were, in some sense, not really a man.[13]

This framing persists in the stereotype of the mannish lesbian and the effeminate gay man, but it was once the dominant paradigm for understanding homosexuality. Nineteenth-century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s theory of sexual inversion posited that homosexuality arose when the gender of a person’s psyche was somehow the inverse of the gender of their body — so lesbians, for example, had a “masculine soul heaving in the female bosom” — and many in the early 20th century described themselves with this terminology, especially after Radclyffe Hall popularized it in her iconic 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness.[14]

Radclyffe Hall in a jacket and tie holding a dog.

Radclyffe Hall c. 1930 (public domain image by unknown photographer via WikiMedia Commons)

Needless to say, this framing makes it impossible to cleanly divide the history of homosexuality from the history of transness. It’s like trying to divide composers from arrangers: Sure, some people focus more on one or the other, but by and large it’s not a distinction you can make. Forcing contemporary distinctions onto historical people not only risks misrepresenting them, it also distorts our understanding of the past. The best approach is to use the language of their own context — language that is often deliberately obscure[15] — especially when that language represents a totally different framework for categorizing these ideas.

Unfortunately, we don’t always have that language, and often it was deliberately suppressed. In perhaps the most dramatic example of the latter, the Nazis burned the entire archive of Berlin’s Institute for Sexology in 1933, destroying some 20,000 books and 5,000 photographs containing irreplaceable records of queer life in early 20th-century Europe. All of this makes studying trans history feel like trying to decode punch cards from an early computer that have been fed through a wood chipper and stored at the bottom of a lake. We know there’s something there, but that doesn’t mean we can actually find it with certainty.

To zoom in on a specific example of historic gender diversity in singing theater, I spoke with Dr. Imani Mosley of Wichita State University.

“The music theater and opera stage have a history of being this amazing place to have conversations about gender, gender identity, and gender presentation,” she said. “There’s a lot there — we’re talking centuries of it. If anyone is under the assumption that this is a 20th- or 21st-century situation: It’s not. It goes all the way back to Venice and the beginning of the dramma per musica. It didn’t always look the same, but these things were always present.”

She continued, “[In the 17th and 18th centuries,] there’s a lot of conflation between gender and sexuality, and castrati are the best example of this because you have all of these conversations surrounding them about the fluidity they moved through. There was space to talk about their gender portrayal as masculine in some aspects and feminine in others.” These conversations in the press didn’t always involve the perspectives of castrati themselves. “The more famous you are, the more likely your words have come down to us today. But there are lots of people we know far less about.”

A 1734 paintingFarinelli leaning on a harpsichord.

Bartolomeo Nazari’s 1734 Portrait of Farinelli. Royal College of Music London CC BY-SA 4.0

And indeed, while castrati like Farinelli who became international superstars have been extensively documented, their experiences aren’t necessarily representative. At the peak of the castrato craze, around 4,000 castrati were being created every year; at this remove, it’s hard to even find their names, let alone detailed information about how they thought about themselves and their genders. It’s easy to assume that any singer before the 20th century who lived a life that we might now read as trans of course would have entered historical memory[16], but it’s also easy to assume that any well-written pieces by people other than cis white men of course would have entered the canon, or that of course people today would remember if every major newspaper, magazine, and radio show in the US had covered a trans woman positively (for the time) for six months in 1952. It’s easy to assume lots of false things.

Many of the best trans shows I’ve seen were ephemeral, performed in small venues with shoestring budgets, receiving no press and minimal documentation.

Working as a trans artist, I see this historical amnesia happening in real time. Many of the best trans shows I’ve seen were ephemeral, performed in small venues with shoestring budgets, receiving no press and minimal documentation. Given the tendency of records to be lost and destroyed over time, any historian looking back at this era is guaranteed to miss much of the dynamic vibrancy of this artistic moment. I fear that the few pieces that do have lasting records will seem like isolated blips instead of snatches of a densely interwoven tapestry.

Next week, we’ll begin the work of illuminating a little of that tapestry with a set of interviews with trans performers.

Further Reading

For those interested in pursuing the topics discussed above in more depth, here are some places to begin:

  • Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl is an excellent introduction to many issues related to transness and femininity, and her two articles on the Activist Language Merry-Go-Round are a must-read for understanding why trans language is both so fluid and so contentious.
  • Noam Sienna’s Rainbow Thread is a vital collection of queer texts within Jewish traditions. The introduction’s clear, trenchant discussion of the difficulties of queer historical language deeply shaped my thinking in this essay.
  • As an entry point to the literature surrounding the relationship between Western and non-Western frameworks of gender and sexuality, “The Heterosexual Matrix as Imperial Effect” by Vrushali Patil is cogent and provides references to many additional sources.
  • Siren Songs, edited by Mary Ann Smart, remains a foundational collection of essays on the topic of representations of gender and sexuality in opera, albeit one that does not always adequately account for trans possibilities.
  • I linked to this in passing above, but “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”, the 1989 article where Kimberlé Crenshaw lays out her theory of intersectionality, is a lucid read on why single-issue politics will never adequately address the complex injustices of the actual world.

Notes

1. I’m limiting this to Western societies because the theatrical works I will be discussing were written and produced in that context, albeit in a tradition with deep roots outside of the West. Many non-Western societies have more than two gender categories, categories that were forcibly suppressed as part of the deliberate genocides of Western colonialism. While some members of indigenous communities use the language of transness to describe themselves, others feel that transness is a specifically Western concept that does not fit their work.

2. Because gender happens in the realm of culture, it is, unsurprisingly, vastly mutable, and the cultural expectations of men and women vary across time, space, and demographics. The mainstream expectations of what gay men and women will be like, say, do not necessarily align with the expectations of what rich, straight, white, able-bodied, etc men and women will look like.

3. NB: The language in that article isn’t perfect, and the legal landscape in the United States has changed somewhat since it was written.

4. Variations abound: CAFAB/CAMAB adds a “coercively” on to the front; DFAB/DMAB changes “assigned” to “designated” or “declared”; FAAB/MAAB rearranges the order of the terms.

5. As with all aspects of self-conception, the reasons someone does or doesn’t claim a certain identity are complex and hugely idiosyncratic, and there isn’t room to go into them here. I’m just going to take it as a given that people have or lack genders and are capable of knowing this about themselves.

6. These edge cases often involve other axes of marginalization. To give just two examples, there are non-trivial arguments to be made that effeminate gay men are excluded from cis masculinity, and that Black women are excluded from cis femininity.

7. When shortened to transmasc or transfem (sometimes spelled transfemme), these terms also collide with masc and femme, which are themselves important identity labels in queer circles that don’t necessarily have any relation to sex assumed at birth.

8. Though, of course, there are absolutely trans people who prefer these terms, and whenever you’re referring to a specific trans person, you should respect their preferences.

9. Nonbinary and non-binary, however, are both fine.

10. Usually with two S’s, but sometimes only with one.

11. I use singing theater as a catch-all term for pieces intended primarily for live performance that use sung text in some way to tell a story, because so many of the issues of trans representation are the same regardless of whether the specific work in question is an opera, musical, oratorio, or song cycle.

12. Well, high-profile in the world of contemporary opera and off-Broadway musicals.

13. This is, obviously, a gross oversimplification, but it will have to do for now.

14. The theory of sexual inversion isn’t the only place where different present-day queer identities blur together. To use a more recent example, drag has historically been a world where the boundary lines between identity categories are fluid to nonexistent; while many present-day trans people have nothing to do with drag scenes, many hugely important figures in trans history made drag a core part of their identities.

15. See, for example, the gay men who referred to themselves as Friends of Dorothy in a tip of the hat to Judy Garland’s role in The Wizard of Oz, which famously led the US Navy to search for an actual woman named Dorothy that all the gay men were friends with.

16. Though, of course, things that strike us as remarkable today may have struck our predecessors as too commonplace to be worth noting. “Our progenitors were not as puritanical as we might believe,” as Mosley wryly noted.

Royce Vavrek: So Many Juicy, Amazing Words

Royce Vavrek sitting down in front of a graffiti-strewn wall.

A conversation at Vavrek’s apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY
December 4, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

While an extremely wide range of composers are writing operas in the United States today, many of these disparate operas share an important trait—a libretto written by someone who was born in Alberta, Canada: Royce Vavrek. Dog Days and JFK (which both feature music by David T. Little), Angel’s Bone (with music by Du Yun), 27 (featuring music by Ricky Ian Gordon), and Song from the Uproar (music by Missy Mazzoli) are only a handful of the projects he has been involved with in the last five years. The gregarious Vavrek at first seems like an unlikely candidate for the mysterious, and regretfully somewhat anonymous, profession of writing opera librettos.

“I don’t know how I made this career,” he acknowledges to us during our talk with him in his Bushwick apartment. “I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics.”

Though words have become his primary focus, Vavrek also sang, played piano, and even composed music when he was growing up. Given such an immersive background in music, it’s surprising that his own musical ideas don’t sometimes get in the way when he is collaborating with a composer.

“My words do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely,” he explains. “I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. … My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. … My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.”

Though nowadays many people don’t think much about Francesco Maria Piave (the man who wrote the libretto for La traviata) or Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the team that created the words that Bizet set for Carmen), Vavrek is quick to point out that audiences for contemporary opera are aware that the composer is not the only person responsible for the final product in this truly collaborative idiom. According to him:

Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something. Not only is the librettist an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

*
Frank J. Oteri: So many different composers are writing operas these days, and they are often really making us rethink what opera is and what it could be, as well as what a new audience for opera could be. But despite this wide variety of musical voices, so many of these operas have librettos by you. It’s the one common ingredient in all of this stuff. How do you get involved with all these different projects, and how do you balance them all?

Royce Vavrek: I’m a very curious human being, and I’ve been extremely lucky. I just meet really inspiring people who have led to meeting other inspiring people. For instance, one of my first outings in the operatic world was a presentation at Carnegie Hall. David [T. Little] and I did a 20-minute chunk of Dog Days that was commissioned by Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov. Missy Mazzoli was at that presentation, and she gave me a flyer and said I should come see her Song from the Uproar. So at this big event in my life, I managed to find another collaborator. Little happenstances like that in this community led to a really healthy family. I continue to identify people that I just have to collaborate with, whom I have to be in dialogue with and marry my voice with theirs because I find their music so singular and exciting. One of the most amazing things about classical music right now is that every composer I’ve worked with has such a completely different language. So each collaborator and I have a particular tract—it’s almost as if each different collaboration is a completely different road that I’m traveling on. And that makes it so exciting.

FJO: But how do you balance them? It seems like you’re working on several of these at the same time, which I can see being very schizophrenic.

RV: I tend to have a major project and then smaller projects. I try not to do too many big, full-length operas concurrently, although I’m sure that there will be a time when that is impossible. But even though my projects are so disparate in form and content, I think that if you did look at my libretti, you would be able to find particular things that would suggest that they are a Royce Vavreck libretto. So while I do have my hand in a lot of different honey jars, they all contain elements of me. It’s interesting to see the different things that sort of link them together. There are these elements that do seem like they are of a time in my life and of a general wavelength.

FJO: So you mentioned working on Dog Days with David T. Little and then meeting Missy Mazzoli. It seems like her project had already started without you, and then you came into it. So I imagine some projects begin with nothing and then you and the composer with whom you are collaborating create a piece together, but for others someone brings you in to work on a project they’ve started, or maybe you also interest somebody in a project you want to work on.

RV: One of the more interesting and exciting things about opera is just how projects begin. For Song from the Uproar, Missy had composed a good portion of the piece and asked me to come and complete the libretto. So I not only had Isabelle’s language—Isabelle Eberhardt is the subject of the opera—but I also had Missy’s interpretation and her music. So there was a way for me to provide my voice, to marry my voice with all of these different elements. But that piece was very particular in that there was a good foundation to leap off of and to create a full-length work based on a seed of an idea.

FJO: So then your answer to the classic question—what comes first, the words or the music?—would be that it really depends.

RV: I would say that, 99 percent of the time, words come first. I’m sure that there will be situations coming up where music comes first, and music dictates lyrical content, but it does seem like for an opera, the words need to inspire the musical landscape—the dramatic landscape of the classical music.

FJO: Until I had read Heidi Waleson’s feature about you in Opera News this past April, I didn’t realize you had studied composition, as well as piano and voice.

RV: As a very young kid—not even in college, but yes.

FJO: So you wrote music?

RV: Yes.

FJO: Do you still write music? And if you don’t, what made you stop?

RV: My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.

FJO: So I’m curious how you came to realize that strength. You were initially studying piano, voice, and composition, not libretto writing. How did you first find words, or did words find you?

RV: I took piano lessons and composition lessons in high school and I was in a choir. I was also really involved in the theater. I had a drama teacher who basically gave me the small budget that was allotted her class, and I wrote something like 17 plays in high school. We took them on the one-act play festival circuit, so I had this sort of practical playwriting education. And I was in love with movies as a kid. That was my window into the outside world growing up on a farm in northern Canada. I was just so in love with international and American independent cinema, especially of the ‘90s. I applied to Concordia University in Montreal and did my undergraduate degree in filmmaking, but then picked up a creative writing second major. So writing has been such a huge part of my life. Even when I was three years old, I remember my mom would take dictation; she would write down stories that I told her.

Telling stories has always been this innate thing that I’ve been participating in. As human beings, we tell stories all the time. So it makes sense that music and storytelling, which were both such a huge part of my life, are now married. I did my master’s degree in musical theater writing. So I do sort of have libretto training. That was more book writing and lyric writing—a libretto is a slightly different animal, but it is very much related to musical theater writing.

Then right after my master’s degree, I did the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and that really set my career on this track. It provided me with the mentorship and the foundations of writing opera, and it also introduced me to my first collaborators. David T. Little actually came to my final concert and learned about my work through that program. Then it was just this snowball effect, really—meeting all these amazing, young composers who all want to tell stories. That’s sort of the lowest common denominator of all of us: we’re all interested in telling stories through music and words, and some of us through dance and through prose. So it just feels like we’re all coming together because we want to tell stories.

FJO: I’d like to unpack this dichotomy between musical theater and opera. Once upon a time opera and musical theater existed in very different spaces, the works were created by different sets of composers and lyricists-librettists, productions employed completely different singers using completely different vocal techniques, and things were performed for totally different audiences. But that’s not completely true anymore. The walls separating operas and musicals have come down quite a lot. So I found it somewhat peculiar to hear you say that you’re writing music for a musical, but you leave it to the masters to write music for operas. In your mind there must still be a difference.

RV: Well, there is and there isn’t. Musical theater often uses popular music to tell the stories, and I think that I am able to work within some of the popular musical languages. Whereas classical music just seems—I don’t want to say more serious, but there is something. But I think that our job is to blur those lines even further. I love musicals. I love, love, love, love that form. That was what I was raised on—cast recordings of 1776, Sunday in the Park with George, Follies, and Shenandoah, one of my other favorite musicals. I’m desperate to contribute to that medium. But I do think that opera and musical theater are both doing many of the same things. They’re both telling stories through music predominantly.

That being said, I do think the label helps identify what and where the venues are. What would 27, the opera I wrote with Ricky Ian Gordon, be like if we had theater singers doing that? Is this something that a theater singer would be capable of performing, or is it just meant for classically trained vocalists? That’s another big concern. Who do we intend to perform it, how and where, and why do these pieces exist and in what form? I think that what Beth Morrison does so beautifully is she says operas don’t need to be done at BAM or the Met. Operas can be done in all these cool venues. They can and should be done at the Met, and they should be done at BAM, but there are alternative homes that are even more exciting and more appropriate for certain pieces.

David [T. Little] also grew up with musical theater as a language that was really important to him. So you’ll see trinkets of more musical theater-y elements in Dog Days for instance, or in Vinkensport. Then there are moments in Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone that also have sort of musical theater-y things. I think that we’re using the best things about musical theater and the best things about opera and creating a middle ground. I also think that we’re extremely excited about the drama, about the theater of opera, so we are really trying to create dynamic works that feel alive, trying to define what opera in the 21st century is and what it’s going to be. I think that that’s a great opportunity for this community of artists that I work in. We get to put a flag in the ground and say this is what we want opera and musical theater to be going forward.

FJO: One of the problems with opera performance today is that most of what is performed in the big opera houses is very old repertoire. A lot of these works are great theater as well as great music, but I think the big opera houses promote the musical aspects over the dramatic ones, to the point that you see posters for Verdi’s La Traviata and the name of the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, rarely gets mentioned. Same with La Bohème. Everyone thinks of Puccini, but who thinks about Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa? Lorenzo Da Ponte gets a little more credit for the operas he wrote with Mozart, but that’s probably because he is known for other reasons—like coming to America and founding the Italian department at Columbia. Whereas in musical theater history, Hammerstein is as famous as Rodgers, in terms of public awareness. So as someone who walked into the world of opera with a background in musical theater, do you feel like you’re an equal player and do you feel that audiences now have come to this position where they can see a work as being the creation of the composer as well as the librettist?

RV: I think that’s another example of how we are borrowing from musical theater where we understand that if the composer didn’t have a words person, they would be writing symphonies. Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something.

Dog Days, for instance, was created in a room with Robert Woodruff, David, and myself. It felt very organic that the three of us came together to identify how that piece was going to be structured. We went through beat-by-beat to make sure that everything was sound and that we all had had a say as to how the work was going to unfold. With Breaking the Waves, we had two dramaturges in the room for our initial workshops and now we have a director named James Darrah, who is really hands-on and is guiding us in the most beautiful way and pushing us to try to make this project as theatrical and separate from the film—using the narrative of the film, but creating our own version of the story. So I think that is an example of how not only the librettist is an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

FJO: To get back to musical theater, you were listening to cast albums before you ever actually saw a show on stage I imagine.

RV: My parents were really great about exposing me to the arts. My father played the piano, and was in a band with his siblings when they were high school age. So I did have access. I remember seeing Anne of Green Gables – The Musical when I was about five years old. We would go to the community theater, so I saw things like Marvin’s Room and Steel Magnolias. And I was in Oliver when I was ten, I believe, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wizard of Oz.

But I was 20 the first time I came to New York and that was definitely the first time that I had the ability to see something that was professional. Although I did see a touring Les Miz. The first opera I saw when I was 18 at Opera de Montreal was the Cav/Pag double bill and that was sort of just mind blowing. That was also my first operatic CD. So that, especially Pagliacci, has such a huge place in my heart. Then, as a singer, I was doing a lot of competitive musical theater classes and stuff like that at the local music festival and the provincial music festivals. So I was learning about pieces not only through the cast albums but also through singing excerpts.

FJO: I find it amusing to hear you say that if composers didn’t have somebody writing words, they’d be writing symphonies.

RV: I understand that a lot of composers do come up with narratives for their non-narrative pieces—their non-vocal pieces. I don’t want to imply that a symphony doesn’t have a story, because I totally understand that that is not the case.

FJO: Yeah, but where I wanted to go with that is that one of the things I find interesting about the collaborations you have had with various composers is that you not only write operas with them, but you also create song cycles and other kinds of pieces that are intended for performance in concert halls. When you enter the concert hall, you really are entering a zone that is the composer’s domain even more so than in an opera house. I don’t know if people are trained to pay attention to the words as an equal component in those contexts at all. So I’m curious about how some of those projects evolved and what you feel your role is in those projects.

RV: My role is very similar. A lot of concert work is very narrative, so it seems like it’s extremely similar to writing an opera, although I don’t get to have people in costumes running around pretending to be men in dog suits or Gertrude Stein. Am I Born was a Brooklyn Philharmonic commission with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. That was something that was set up by Alan Pierson. He came to David T. Little and said he would love to commission something for what I believe was his first season with the Brooklyn Phil. He wanted it to be Brooklyn specific and, being a Brooklynite, that was a really exciting challenge. So we chose a painting that’s hanging in the Brooklyn Museum and decided we were going to try to bring that to life, to animate that through an oratorio. I structured it similarly to how I would an opera, trying to make it as varied as possible and to take the audience on a 30-minute journey. So while it is different, it really does feel like it is alive in the same way that an opera does.

FJO: Yes, but whereas folks in the new opera community can wrap their brains around the fact that Dog Days is by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, can folks in the concert world do that with Am I Born? I imagine that most concert programs featuring Am I Born will probably list it as a work by David T. Little and your name will only appear somewhere in the program notes. But maybe it’s not that way.

RV: It’s generally a company thing. For instance, looking at how the LA Phil lists things, often it’s just the composer’s last name with a colon and the name of the piece. But I think that times are changing. It seems like it’s less and less difficult to convince people that the librettist or the lyricist is important. For instance, on the cover of the 27 CD, my name is right next to Ricky’s. And with the Hubble Cantata, my cantata with Paola Prestini, my name is right up there with the name of astrophysicist Mario Livio and the film maker Carmen Kordas, and Paola’s name of course.

It is true that with a concert work, it’s less easy. I guess the concert world is a particular animal; it is harder to become recognized for concert work. But I think that a lot of composers, a lot of my collaborators, understand my contribution and they fight for me. A lot of it comes down to that. It comes down to a composer saying, “This is a collaboration, a team effort, and my collaborator deserves to be mentioned.” Often we’re not even mentioned. So I do think the biggest turn is my contemporaries, my collaborators, my colleagues saying, we understand your contribution and we think that it needs to be honored at least in having your name printed.

FJO: Since you have a musical background and you said that the words come first most of the time, I’m wondering if there have been times after someone else has set your words to music that what the composer did clashes with what you thought it should sound like.

RV: My words, when I write them, do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely. The musical idea will be more general, like I feel like this is a sad song or this a happy song or this is a song that accomplishes this narratively. I would never say that the music is wrong. I don’t even know what that means. If there is music that I just don’t connect with, that’s a bigger problem, but I haven’t ever come across that. I can’t even think of an example of a composer who’s let me down, or who has completely derailed my narrative ideas. I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. Or it always has been. I’ll let you know when that’s not the case.

FJO: That’s good. You’re lucky.

Royce Vavrek leaning against a graffiti strewn wall.

RV: It’s so hard to make a career, it really is. I don’t know how I made this career. I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics. But because it’s such a hard industry to navigate, especially financially, you’ve got to be very serious. You’ve got to be very, very thoughtful, and you’ve got to put the time in. These opportunities are gifts, truly.

We’re all working so hard and trying to use our voices to tell the best stories and make the best music possible; that’s the name of the game. I think that if you’re not contributing in that way, that’s where I might have difficulty. Like if it’s just sort of—I don’t want to say hobby, because I think making music as a hobby is a beautiful thing and I would encourage everyone to do that. But I do think that I work with people who are driven to really contribute to the form and to advance the form, and who do really cool things. We have that potential and, especially with these opportunities we have, it seems like we have this unlimited palette with which to create really dynamic stories.

FJO: So what about the reverse of the music being wrong; let’s flip the coin. Have you ever been in situations where you bring in a text and the composer turns around and says, “That’s not going to work; that’s not singable. I need something else there; this isn’t right.” What I’m after with this whole line of questioning is trying to get a sense of what the give and take is in the collaborative processes that you’re a part of.

RV: It’s not so much that particular words don’t sing, I don’t think. The English language is so eccentric and awesome and there are just so many juicy, amazing words. I’ve never had a composer come to me and say it doesn’t sing. I’ve had a composer say I’m having a hard time figuring it out dramatically or finding my way through it. I always think that there are one thousand ways that one can write a scene. So if that ever happens, I’m more than happy—oh my goodness, send me away and have me re-write. I will try to find another way that will get the best music from you. My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. So if my words aren’t doing that for you, I’m going to do my damnedest to find other words that do. I can give you an example. The final aria in JFK is one big emotional outpouring before the end of the show. I had written a version of that aria and it sort of sat in the libretto for a good nine months, a year maybe. Then David finally got to it. He had worked all the way up to it, but he just couldn’t find a way to make that particular text work dramatically in that moment. So we worked together, talking about what that moment needed to be, and I think I re-wrote that aria two or three times. It’s infinitely better, and it feels so much more true to the dramatic pulse of that moment. So yeah, I’m so open to re-writing and trying to figure out how to make it work for the composer. Not that I want to concede the medium to the composer, but the music needs to be really, really great. So if I can do anything that will help create really, really exciting, awesome music, then I’m more than happy to oblige.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you go away and write another text. There’s this cliché—which is totally not true—about Broadway collaborators and how they were portrayed by Hollywood and by promo photos back in the day. I particularly remember a photo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, where Richard Rodgers is sitting at the piano and Oscar Hammerstein is writing words. But probably the reality is they worked separately and then they came together to work out things. For you, at least, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been that kind of Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show thing.

RV: Very rarely. Little edits can be done in the room. For instance, I was just in rehearsal for Angel’s Bone a couple days ago, and there was a section that we all decided needed to have some words replaced. That was something I sort of did on the fly. But I much prefer to go home and just have my time and allow for the words to manifest. I have not yet had the experience where I’ve sat in a room with a composer while they were plunking out melodies and saying, “Does this work?” That seems like more of a musical theater thing. With opera there are so many more moving parts, so it often seems like the composer and I want our time to go away to sort of messy things up—you know, so you can tear things apart and put them back together. But, just to be very good about honoring people’s time, it might not be the best usage of time to sort of sit and pray that something comes out between the two of you. It just seems much easier to go away and make your work.

FJO: So the process of making your work—where and when does all of this stuff take place?

RV: I like to sit on the couch and write, but I really like to get out of town. My Breaking the Waves libretto was written at home in Canada. I went home for three weeks and sat in my mother’s house and watched the Olympics. It was right around the time that the Olympics were going on. So that was my time to enjoy that and get a full draft of Breaking the Waves. JFK was written in this house. For 27 I went up to my dramaturge’s house, up in Hudson, and had a really good draft of that, but I had a week where I didn’t leave the confines of the house. I would just write new scenes, and he would sit there and take me through every line and make sure that all my “I”s were dotted and “T”s were crossed. More and more, I’m really loving the exodus from New York to get work done. That being said, a lot of work has to happen here. It seems like there’s just so much time that is spent away from home. You tend to want to really make the time count when you’re here. I’m here for January. Then I have to go to Germany for the new production of Dog Days. I’m in Fort Worth for JFK; I’m in Philly for Breaking the Waves. The big thing for me is that there are just so many events that happen in New York. I’m working with so many people. I love the work of all of my collaborators and contemporaries and colleagues. So it’s important for me to be a part of that. But that also means that a lot of writing time is gobbled up by events. It is really great to go away and have that time and to be sort of not within the machine that is the New York classical music community, because you want to participate so much. I’m understanding more fully why residencies are so important and why people find that going up to MacDowell, closing that door and having weeks of uninterrupted art creation time, is so beneficial.

FJO: But you can create a libretto while watching the Olympics?

RV: Well, I did not do it at the same time.

FJO: I know several composers who write music while watching television. I don’t get it.

RV: If I did do that, I wouldn’t be watching the TV—it would just be background noise, which I’m guessing would probably be the same thing for those composers. But I don’t have that type of brain that allows me to do two things at once. I cannot split my attention. I love audio books, but I couldn’t listen to an audio book and retain what’s coming in and be able to make coherent thoughts on the page.

FJO: Can you listen to a symphony while writing?

RV: It would all be sort of peripheral, background.

FJO: So silence is the best?

RV: It’s not necessarily the best, but for me listening means you’re actually taking that information in. If I were to listen to a symphony and write, it would just be sort of a blanket of sound behind my process and I wouldn’t really be retaining any of that musical information.

FJO: Or your phrases would wind up being the same phrases of that symphony.

RV: Yeah.

FJO: Then you would have music in your head that went with your words that would not be the same as the music of your collaborator.

RV: I certainly do listen to music while I write, but there are moments when I’m just like aargh, this is overload! I have to turn it off, and I’ll have significant silent writing time. I think my ideal writing situation would be pretty much silence somewhere that’s cloistered to a great extent.

FJO: To follow up on what you just said about listening: you follow the work of your collaborators, and you mentioned the first opera CD you got was Cav/Pag, and I see there’s a Janis Joplin poster here in your apartment. I’m wondering, how much time do you devote to listening to music that is separate and apart from your collaborations, and how does that listening then become fuel for your own creativity?

RV: I listen to so much music. And I watch as many movies as possible, and I do watch a lot of TV. I love taking things in, so that is an extremely important part of my life. I do think that every story you encounter and every piece of work that you even begin to understand becomes part of you, and you carry that. They become lessons.

I was given the opportunity to write about a particular poet that had really informed my work in some way. The poet that I chose was a singer-songwriter named Kathleen Edwards. She has lyrics that I encountered when I was in grad school that completely blew my mind and in some ways have informed my work more than any librettist. My narrative sensibility I think comes from being reared on Lars Von Trier, Neil LaBute, and Wong Kar-wai. I’m able to not mimic them, by any stretch of the imagination, but to allow their ideas to be tools or methods with which to explore my own ideas. I just encountered Benjamin Clementine for the first time. He won the Mercury Prize last week. I’m sure that my work will in some way benefit from, or will be informed by, just this absolute consuming musical world that is swirling around my head right now based on my insistence to continue going through Benjamin’s work.

FJO: And reading?

RV: Oh, my gosh. I read so, so, so much. There are so many people that read more than me, but I feel healthier when I read. I really, really, really do. And I’ve been exploring audio books a lot. I love lying in bed and just listening to hours on end of audio books. It’s impossible for me to read these days and not wonder how I would adapt those works into an opera or music theater form. There’s always something about, well, how would I do that?

Even going to the cinema, there’s something about wanting to be in dialogue and how I would approach this particular narrative. Going back to reading, I read a lot based on books that people recommend because they may want to tackle them in some sort of opera or musical way. But I’m always looking for interesting languages and how people tell stories just for my general narrative health.

FJO: I’m also curious about your intake of visual art. You mentioned the painting at the Brooklyn Museum that inspired Am I Born, and while we were setting up the recording equipment you talked about this photograph behind you that is by the subject of your musical.

RV: Visual art has informed so many of my projects. Thinking about 27, my opera with Ricky Ian Gordon that was commissioned by Opera Theater of St. Louis and premiered in 2014, that piece was all about the art that hung in Gertrude and Alice’s apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In JFK, my opera with David T. Little that was commissioned by Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theater, similarly there is an amazing story where there was this woman Ruth Carter Stevenson who knew that Jack and Jackie were only going to have a very limited window in Fort Worth. She decided that because they wouldn’t have time to go to the museums there, that she would bring the museums to them. So she went around and collected a really great sample of the works that were held in Fort Worth and put them all up in their hotel room. Right before the breakfast meeting, Jackie was about ten minutes late, and some people have this theory that she realized that the art on the walls was real—all the paintings and sculptures. The Picasso owl was real. And she was arrested for those ten minutes and that caused her lateness, which is kind of amazing, and this is embedded into the opera. The art becomes these portals into dreams.

So JFK, 27, Am I Born, and the music I’m writing with Ted Shen about Vivian Maier, who was a Chicago street photographer in the mid-20th century. She worked as a nanny and took a lot of pictures of children, but she would also just go to downtown Chicago and New York and take street photos. She certainly was not a famous woman by any stretch of the imagination and she died in obscurity. A young man named John Malouf bought a lot of her negatives in an auction and realized that they were extremely special. He put them online and was encouraged to take those photos offline because they were just so awesome. We are creating a piece that celebrates the mystery of this woman. We don’t really know why she took so many pictures and then didn’t develop them. She was sort of—I wouldn’t say an anti-artist, but she was compelled to take these photographs but then was not really compelled to complete the photographic process, which is really, really cool. Here’s a woman who was taking selfies. Most of her portraits that are so truly beloved are these auto-portraits.

Royce Vavrek on the sidewalk leaning against a metal grating.

FJO: The first work of yours that I saw on a stage was Dog Days, and while I found it totally compelling, I also thought that it was really creepy and really dark—extremely disturbing. You seem like a sunny person. What attracted you to something so grim?

RV: Dog Days was based on a short story by Judy Budnitz that was a little sunnier than our treatment. It was set in the ‘80s, so the Cold War was still on. The foundation of that piece was very much Judy’s, but then it was sort of amplified and heightened and we made it a little bit more grim in concert with Robert Woodruff, the director. But we didn’t set out to write a grim piece. And there are moments of levity and lightness, too, that I think are really funny. It is a hard piece. It’s a heavy piece. I totally understand that. But I also think there’s great life, especially in the Lisa character. I’m writing Breaking the Waves with Missy Mazzoli, which is similarly a rather dark, heavy work. Because of my being reared on international cinema of the late-‘90s and early-2000s, those stories have always spoken to me. There’s always been this desire to tell serious stories about the human condition. Look at Angel’s Bone. That’s not fun and frothy. But also I love comedy, so thinking of David, Vinkensport or The Finch Opera is as frothy and fun as they come. But even that ends with a twist where the final aria is this outpouring of emotion from this one particular character who is releasing his finch and is basically thanking him for years of companionship. So it’s not that I’m not interested in comedy. I haven’t made a concerted decision to tell grim tales, although opera does have the potential to tell those stories in a really, really dynamic and full way. I think that that’s why our artistic impulses often lead us to darker stories. But I think that you’re going to see a lot of comedy, God willing, from me throughout my career.

FJO: Well, definitely not in JFK.

RV: Not JFK, although what David and I have been talking a lot about is our desire for audiences leaving JFK to be grateful and to maybe hug loved ones just a little bit tighter that evening, to understand that life is precious. It doesn’t end with his assassination; it ends with him leaving the hotel. We don’t see the tragedy, but his leaving the hotel is taking him to Dallas, so there is that sense of doom. And the soundscape that David has come up with is extremely varied and there’s something very ominous, especially after the intermission. It really feels like something very monumental is going to happen. The fates are aligning.

FJO: I didn’t realize that the audience never sees his assassination and only gets the hint through what the orchestra is playing when he leaves the hotel. It’s reminiscent to me of what I think is one of the most effective moments in Dog Days—the end where the mother is on the table and there’s a slowly building wall of noise that just blows out your ears by the end. It’s the most intense thing. You never really see what you know is happening, but you know it’s happened. All this stuff is going on, but curiously—and I want to bring this up to you as the librettist—it was all done without words.

RV: But if you look at the libretto for that moment, there is a very particular stage direction. So it’s done with words, but just not sung words. And she does sort of wail a little bit. And she snivels, and she pees. Right?

FJO: In terms of the collaborative process, how did a moment like that get decided upon and who decided it?

RV: The three of us. Judy’s story ends with the dog being shot and eaten. In the dramaturgical sessions that we had with Robert, I remember very clearly he said, “But what happens next?” That was the mind-shattering moment. There were these images that Robert brought up, I believe, about just seeing lions having eaten. I see lions, and I see an act of ablution, and then we went home. We went our separate ways. I came up with sort of the just the general idea, but we didn’t find the washing of the mother with urine until—that was Robert in rehearsal. In the libretto, it talks about how she performs, or she gathers snow and washes her mother’s body. But we decided that water was gone at that point. So what is she going to wash her mother’s body with? In this scenario where there’s nothing, that was very much a directorial find.

I remember reading the stage management report and being like, “Oh, my goodness. What is going on at rehearsal?” I tend to leave rehearsals to the singers and the director and the team for the first few days at least. I like everybody to get their bearings before the writers tromp in. So I was like, “I don’t really know what this is; this seems really wild.” But it is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking moments that I’ve had a hand in creating. I’m so proud of what the whole team came to create in that moment.

FJO: In terms of the hands-on/hands-off thing, you’re traveling around the world. You’ve got productions happening here in New York in January and then in Germany and Texas, all over the place. It’s going to get to the point where you probably can’t be at all of these things. Hopefully there’ll be productions of these works all the time. It’s interesting to hear you say that you wait a little while before you come in. What about the process of letting go?

RV: Oh, I’m so excited for that. I’m finally at the stage of my career where we do have projects that are taking on a life of their own. Dog Days will come full circle. We’re bringing it back to New York as part of the Protoype Festival in January ‘16, alongside the world premiere of Angel’s Bone. But Dog Days after January will have its first new production [in Germany]. So David T. Little is going over and is going to have about a week with them during rehearsals. I’m going to come for opening night. There is something really beautiful in that we feel like we have created the version that we need to oversee. We’ve created one version that was very much hands-on; we were in the room. We worked with Robert to create the production that began at Montclair Peak Performances, then went to Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera, and is coming to Prototype. What we’ve created is a roadmap that is intended to be interpreted in as many ways as possible. So I think that the most exciting thing at this juncture in the life of Dog Days is that it’s open now. We don’t need to be hands-on. We can let other people come up with ideas that will inform the work in ways that we didn’t even imagine.

FJO: And you’re happy with that?

RV: Yes, because in order to make a living and to make a career in the operatic world, your work needs to be done. And I am obsessed and addicted to creating new work. So I need to be able to allow my earlier work to be interpreted in such a way that I can go make new operas with David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli and Ricky Ian Gordon and Du Yun and Josh Schmitt and Matt Marks and all these fabulous people. Missy Mazzoli did say at one point that you’ve just got to hope to God that opening nights don’t happen on the same night. Especially when I’m working on so many different projects, invariably there are going to be things that overlap. But you do your work, and you attend whatever needs your love and attendance. And you hope that everything just sort of fits.

Sounds Heard—Liaisons: Re-Imaging Sondheim from the Piano

The cover for the ECM New Series 3-CD set Liaisons (2470-72).


Liaisons (ECM 2470-72), Anthony de Mare’s 3-CD recital of piano pieces by 36 different composers based on musical theatre songs by Stephen Sondheim, is somewhat unprecedented in the annals of recorded history. In some respects, it’s akin to numerous instrumental jazz albums that re-interpret Broadway show tunes, but not really. These re-imaginings are not by one artist or combo but rather by 36 different composers, actually 37, since as a postlude de Mare offers a Sondheim rendering of his own devising. So perhaps it is more like a tribute album in which the oeuvre of a specific songwriter or band is covered by a wide range of artists. Well, not quite. Even though three dozen disparate compositional voices were involved here and the results are extremely different, all were asked to create music for the piano (and most did, though some added electronics). Plus all of these Sondheim “covers” are interpreted by the same musician—Anthony de Mare—and these pieces form a surprisingly cohesive whole when the collection is listened to in its entirety.

Aside from the recording, de Mare is currently in the middle of a tour where he is performing these works live. On Thursday, November 19, he will perform a selection from the series in New York City, with Sondheim scheduled to be in the audience, at Symphony Space. Then on December 12, he will take the material to PianoForte Studios in Chicago, with more appearances in the works for 2016.

To give some hint of the range of this project, we asked two of the composers de Mare commissioned—Annie Gosfield and Eve Beglarian—to share with us the some of the back story behind their idiosyncratic takes on Sondheim songs. In Gosfield’s setting of “A Bowler Hat,” from Sondheim’s somewhat lesser-known 1976 Broadway musical Pacific Overtures, phrases from the original song waft in and out, whereas in Beglarian’s “Perpetual Happiness,” an elaborate fantasia on the song “Happiness” from Sondheim’s 1994 Tony-award winning show Passion, Sondheim’s tune is transformed into insistent, propulsive motives that caress the keyboard relentlessly. Both totally sound like the work of their respective composers yet both still clearly reflect Sondheim’s immediately-identifiable sound world.

—FJO

*

Different Hats

By Annie Gosfield

I never sat through a live musical. I can barely name a show tune, let alone sing one.

So imagine my surprise when Anthony de Mare contacted me about reimagining a Stephen Sondheim song for a new project. As usual, Tony’s enthusiasm was infectious, and I love surprising projects that unexpectedly spring up, so how could I say no?

I met Tony in the 1990‘s, when the new music scene in New York was smaller, friendlier and a little more incestuous. Tony played my piece “Brooklyn, October 5, 1941,” in which the pianist’s fingers never actually touch the keys. Instead, the notes are sounded by baseballs, which are rolled on the keyboard, and used to strike the strings and soundboard of the piano. A catcher’s mitt comes into play, creating monstrous left-hand clusters. This athletic piece was a happy match with Tony’s very physical approach to the piano. I never would have guessed that writing a piece for piano, baseballs, and catcher’s mitt would lead to Sondheim.

We met to discuss the project, and Tony gave me a list of available songs. Steve Reich had already grabbed “Finishing the Hat,” so I quickly checked out “A Bowler Hat.” Why? Because I like hats, and I used to be a milliner. The two contexts are not completely unrelated: the urge to transform materials and make something new out of something in hand exists whether I’m dealing with a Sondheim song or a raw piece of felt. “A Bowler Hat” was a little more obscure (the last thing I wanted to do was tackle “Send in the Clowns”) and had an infectious repeated theme. It’s from Pacific Overtures, and sung by Kayama, a Japanese man proudly displaying his Western accoutrements—a pocket watch, a cutaway coat, and, of course, a bowler hat. The song is about cultural shifts and Kayama’s personal transformation, which fits nicely with the idea of adapting a musical theater piece to my own style.

Working with the piece was another story. The further I got from the original, the weaker the music became. I quickly learned what so many of the other composers already knew, that Sondheim’s songs were impeccably constructed. Any major changes felt like pulling one stone out of a Roman arch; Sondheim was our keystone and the original structure stood beautifully on its own. Like blocking a hat, the song had its own inherent shape, and it was best to respect that. Writing for Tony provided a lot of inspiration as well. I took some liberties, imagining his unique mix of muscular brawn and emotional lyricism, added elements, and combined existing motives. In the end, I stepped back and enjoyed being the instigator of a new conversation between Mr. Sondheim and Mr. de Mare.

This series of delightful surprises continued. When I was a teenager and first met my partner, guitarist Roger Kleier, in the dorm of the music school at North Texas State University, the background soundtrack was often the gorgeous, ethereal, reverb-heavy LPs by Terje Rypdal and John Abercrombie. They were part of Manfred Eicher’s signature sound world on ECM. Fast forward a few decades, and I’m at the Academy of Arts and Letters with the wondrous Judith Sherman producing Tony’s impressive 3-CD set, and after an unexpected sequence of baseballs, hats, and late night dorm listening, my name’s on an ECM release, represented by the spectacular Mr. de Mare.

*

Happiness

By Eve Beglarian

I thought I knew what love was,
I thought I knew how much I could feel.
I didn’t know what love was.
But now I do.

—Giorgio in “Happiness from Passion

When Tony de Mare asked me to rework a Sondheim song for his Liaisons project, it took me a while to settle on the opening number from Passion. At the time, I had never actually seen a production of that particular show, so I was surprised when it called to me.

Passion opens with a couple reaching the end of their lovemaking and then singing a love duet in their post-orgasmic bliss. How else do you open a show called Passion, right?

But it’s a curious love duet. While the melodic lines do everything love duets are supposed to, and the words are full of love and certainty, the accompaniment is slightly off-kilter, with curious glancing dissonances that roil just beneath the surface. One of the hardest jobs I had in my reworking was to keep the crunchiness submerged: the dissonances wanted to leak out and infect my version, which would have destroyed the perfect ironic balance Sondheim created.

When I made my version, I thought I understood what the song was getting at. I understood the show as a warped rom-com that happens to end badly. The guy is with the wrong girl, who seems totally right at first; he meets the right girl (who seems really amazingly wrong at first) and finds true love, which is really great. But then it turns out that love, physical love, kills the woman he loves. So sad.

And a little confusing and unsatisfying. Is the story saying that passion is great but sex is a problem? Not too likely. Is it saying love has to kill you to be the real thing? I know there’s a long tradition (Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and on and on) bolstering that line, but in most cases it’s outside forces that kill the lovers, not love itself. I’ve been mulling this whole question over for a while, even after seeing the fine production of the show at Classic Stage Company in 2013.

A few weeks ago, at Tony’s first show celebrating the CD release, the project’s producer, Rachel Colbert, told me about a novel called Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, which tells the same story as Passion. Sondheim credits Ettore Scola’s film, Passione d’Amore, as his inspiration, a film which in turn was based on the novel Fosca, by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti. Tarchetti seems to be the source for both Sondheim and Zweig, but I don’t know if Sondheim has read the Zweig.

For me, Beware of Pity was a revelation.

Zweig makes horrifyingly clear that pity is an act of monstrous vanity which destroys everyone: both the pitier and the pitied. Pity is the opposite of empathy or even sympathy. The pitying person sets himself above the one he pities:

On that evening I was God. I had calmed the waters of unrest and driven the darkness from their hearts. But from myself, too, I had chased away the fear, my soul was at peace as never before in all my life.

Pity acts to alienate the pitier from the pitied, isolating the pitier from the vulnerability the pitied person arouses in him. In Beware of Pity, Zweig makes clear that the most broken person in the story is not the sickly woman, but the male protagonist, who himself realizes, “it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in this world.”

At the end of the novel, he abandons his now-fiancée—who commits suicide in response to his betrayal—and runs off to join the opening battles of the First World War. It’s clear to readers of the novel, which was published in 1938, that this soldier has the soul of a Nazi officer: a seemingly brave, strong hero who is actually weak, fearful, and therefore brutal.

In Passion, when Sondheim brings back the music of “Happiness” under a love scene between Fosca and Giorgio, I think he is hinting at some of this complexity. We know Giorgio was wrong to sing “I didn’t know what love was, but now I do,” to his first lover, Clara, at the top of the show. Fosca is heartbreakingly correct at the end of the show, when she sings “Too much happiness, more than I can bear” to the same melody. She sings these words to a man who even now doesn’t have a clue what real love is, because he is besotted with pity.

Usually I embark on creative work with some awareness of what it is I am trying to make sense of as I make the piece. In this case, the piece called me before I understood why I needed to grapple with it. I am grateful to Tony, to Stephen Sondheim, to Rachel Colbert, and to Stefan Zweig for showing me something I needed to understand. Thanks to this exploration, I understand something new about the vital distinction between pity and empathy/sympathy. But I’m still not going to claim I understand what love is!

When Do I Get to Stop Exposing Myself?

Photo of pages of theatrical script.

Photo by Luke Redmond. Photo by Luke Redmond (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.

Starting out as creators of new music theater, we are never told the whole truth about what it means to be an “emerging composer.” Unknown writers have a series of hurdles to clear, many of which entail seeing projects to completion without seeing a dime, all in the name of “good exposure.” Constant self-producing and the seemingly endless development cycle take financial and emotional tolls that inevitably affect the writing process and our lives as a whole. At what point does our work finally carry universally recognized “value”?

As it has famously been said of other art forms, so too with the new musical or opera: it is never finished, only abandoned. The gestation period of a musical from a first informal table read to the big opening night may be a decade or longer: readings, workshops, maybe a small regional production, a move from Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway to Broadway (in extremely rare and auspicious cases), several weeks of previews, and finally everything gets “frozen” for posterity and future productions. Along the way are rewrites, rewrites, and more rewrites following input from directors, music directors, choreographers, dramaturgs, performers, designers, and of course producers. Nothing about the work is certain until it is in front of an audience, and in the meantime the writers must keep guessing and second guessing. (The process of bringing a new opera to the stage may or may not be as lengthy, but the opera world has begun to take some cues from the musical theater world and has begun incorporating more readings and workshops into the trajectory.) As the economy and priorities of Broadway have shifted over the last couple of decades, full production opportunities have been supplanted by “developmental opportunities” (which are not the same as the extremely valuable training programs around the country which do nurture developing theater composers and librettists). Now the two-week lab, the 29-hour Equity reading, or the 16-performance showcase is usually the end of the rainbow, and the entities that supported those endeavors will not help nudge a piece any closer to the light of day. Writers are seldom paid during any of the developmental phases, even if everyone else around them receives at least a small stipend. But it’s good exposure—unless they are private readings just to hear the piece out loud (which, believe me, are crucial in their own way). Once the readings and workshops end with no supported next steps in sight, writers must take matters into their own hands and self-produce. Festivals only provide partial assistance, still leaving the authors to raise thousands of dollars to fight for attention in a sea of equally unfamiliar work. It is extremely difficult to find an independent producer willing to take a risk on a new piece if the writers are obscure and there is no other “brand recognition” associated with the show. And then some festivals have policies like this:

A minimum of one (1) paid audience member for each minute of your show…is REQUIRED. However, we really want you to pack our 99-seat house for your single performance. The more support you have in the audience, the more you’ll get out of your performance and talk-back, plus we’ll like you more. If you feel you cannot provide an audience for your piece, don’t apply… If the ticket minimum is not honored…the artist will be expected to make up the balance with a tax-deductible donation to [theater company redacted] on the night of the performance.

Here’s the icing on the cake: some companies advertise the pieces we write for free as new commissions. I vote for an immediate end to this practice. By all means, call it a world premiere by the Next Important Composer of Our Time. Phrase it however you need to make it sound sexy and get butts in seats, but it is not a commission. It is unpaid labor from which others stand to gain.

During this long, thorny uphill climb to a high-level production, emerging composers must constantly strive to have work heard as often as possible in whatever format they can find. Usually this means a song or short set included on a program featuring several different composers. Again, no pay but good exposure! Well, good exposure is relative to the resources the presenters (and the writers) have to get the “right people” in the door. And between cover charges and food/drink minimums, it’s easy to end up paying a lot of money to see your own songs performed. So how about self-producing a concert of your own work? After a host of expenses I probably don’t need to itemize for this readership, breaking even is a minor miracle, and simultaneously promoting and rehearsing the art creates a precarious time management situation.

Hence it becomes important to find a survival job. Beware, though: whatever you decide to pursue, among laypeople and established musicians alike, there will be a stigma associated with it. It’s understood, though no one says it in so many words, that any composer worth his/her salt writes toward fully staged productions full time, and the only other respectable source of income is a tenure-track teaching position at a university. Anything else means you’re doing something wrong. (Case in point: after each of the last few presentations of my work, someone has come up to me and said some variation of “You’re so good. What are you still doing at your day job?” It’s a compliment that stings.) In a country where the arts are not well financed (if they are financed at all) and the general populace believes that music just magically appears for free, this is simply not the complete picture. Faculty positions are neither plentiful nor optimal for everyone. If it’s a universally accepted truth that actors also wait tables, then why is it so hard to fathom that composers may do other things too? In addition to traditional gigs in the field—music copying/editing, musical direction, accompanying dance classes, subbing in Broadway pits, etc.—the composers and lyricists I know hold all sorts of survival jobs: writing copy for catalogues, assembling people’s IKEA furniture, fixing computers, babysitting, playing dueling-piano shows, and all manner of office positions at hedge funds, nonprofits, law firms, and more. I am fortunate enough to be employed at a place that lets me expand my knowledge of the operatic repertoire, work directly with many of my favorite composers, and acquire many life skills I would not have picked up while writing alone in my apartment. But that’s not appropriate cocktail party conversation. It is more important to appear sought after and busy with at least one high-profile project so those who can help us attain our aspirations will perk up and take notice. I look forward to a day when emerging composers can stop treating their day jobs as dirty secrets. Let us all please take a breath and acknowledge that we are not failing, but rather we have succeeded in finding a way to keep afloat in a difficult fiscal climate without sacrificing the core of our artistic lives.

In the end, though, the survival job serves the curious dual function of allowing us to and yet keeping us from concentrating on the music. We can pay the rent, take tiny monthly bites out of massive student loan debt, and even fund small-scale performances of our work every now and then, but there is a ceiling to what we can accomplish when our time and attention are so thoroughly divided. Composing is for evenings, weekends, and lunch breaks. A mentor of mine says that if you only have ten minutes to write, then you go deep instead of wide. But what if we never get to go wide and fully understand the complete pieces we are writing because we are always composing in the musical equivalent of sprints? A 9-to-5 commitment does not mesh with the majority of professional rehearsal schedules or the availability of most performers and creative staff; as a result, we may end up working with our third or fourth choices and compromising the best representations of our creations. If the day job does not offer enough flexibility, we may have to pass on certain opportunities altogether. There are residencies for which I never even apply because I cannot leave the office for two months at a time. Talk about good exposure—that’s an automatic wave goodbye to some prestigious resume credits. Then there is the sheer physical exhaustion that comes with the demands of two careers. If a piece is in rehearsal, we work days, rehearse nights, rewrite in the middle of the night, rinse and repeat until the show opens. I have no idea how people who take care of families even manage this. Survival jobs may sustain us on a basic level for the moment, but they are not a sustainable model for the long haul.

Of course no one in the world is required by default to love or pay for our art. And of course sometimes we really do begin new projects solely because we are burning to share something vital to us, and we find homes for them later. But if theaters or opera companies commit to presenting our work without offering compensation, and we say yes over and over again, at some point we are saying, “Take my work, which has no value.” If we say no, will anyone ever hear what we have trained for and labored over for so long? This is the emerging composer’s ongoing dilemma, and this is how it is possible to be an emerging composer at 40, 50, and beyond. Recently I said no to a “commission” for a new song cycle. I felt a twinge of regret, but I took solace in knowing that it would save me time for the other operas, musicals, and scores for plays I am already in the process of writing for no money, for the love of it, and occasionally for the exposure.

Mister, Make Me a…Song?

Photo of a songwriter's workspace. A digital keyboard synthesizer on a tripod positioned by a window perpendicular to a desk; on the desk is a notebook, laptop, headphones, and glass of water.

Photo by Luke Redmond (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.)

At my day job in music publishing, I spend a lot of time on the phone with the staff at film companies, television stations, and musical organizations who need to know if we license this or that song. Over the course of our conversations, I often discover that what they are calling a song is actually a whole song cycle, a movement from a symphony, half a string quartet, or even an entire opera. Compositions entered into databases have “song codes” regardless of their content. iTunes’s various “upgrades” have managed to jumble every excerpt of every opera, oratorio, musical, symphony, concerto, or other multi-track work in my collection; its overly general classification of “songs” has transformed my once-pleasant listening experience into a chore as I hunt for newly mislabeled tracks in albums needlessly broken into multiple iterations. Since rock ‘n’ roll zoomed to the top of the charts and the sun set on the Golden Age of musical theater, songs written for the stage have not been the currency of mainstream musical engagement. Yet “song” has become the default term for just about any piece of music under the sun. Is the word still meaningful to creators of new musical theater? How does it inform our writing as we formulate the structure and content of our larger pieces? How do we think about songs within and outside their original context? Are there additional considerations that are not even artistic in nature?

In most operas, there are clear distinctions between recitative and aria. The recitative usually contains a fair amount of exposition, and the aria that follows is a reflection on or reaction to that information. Often this requires only a few lines of text and is also a chance to feature some vocal pyrotechnics. Song form in musical theater is a descendant of, among many things, the operatic aria. Though contemporary musicals sometimes employ recitative (sung over chords as in the old style, or spoken in rhythm over an ostinato), in the usual book musical format the dialogue functions as recitative would in an opera, so less recitative is necessary. As musicals evolved over the 20th century, songs became more heavily integrated into the story and carried more responsibility to move it forward. It was no longer satisfactory to step out of the action just to say “I love you” in 32 clever, internally rhymed measures. Music also appears in “sequences,” longer sung scenes or portions of scenes which may involve many characters (example: “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen” from A Chorus Line). Sequences were happening in the days of Gilbert and Sullivan and continue into the work of Michael John LaChiusa and his peers. We generally don’t include those under the “song” umbrella since they can take vastly different shapes in their respective shows. Since songs—and musical moments overall—comprise more of the true core of their parent sources now, it can be more difficult to extract them from their natural habitat and fully understand them. Sure, someone can technically sing “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd on its own, but if we’ve seen the hour or so of backstory unfold first, it is much easier to appreciate.

One of my favorite musicals, William Finn’s revelatory In Trousers, breaks most of the rules. It is almost completely sung through. The score is divided into 29 numbers, but each segues immediately into the next. Many begin with brief intros without really paving the way for anything the characters will express next. Few adhere to an A-A-B-A, verse-chorus, or other standard song form. Some are abstract, bordering on stream of consciousness. Non sequiturs and nonsense syllables pop out of the lyrics. Many end abruptly with no resolution or catharsis. One song, “The Rape of Miss Goldberg,” is divided into eight scenes, each of which is announced. Since the main character, Marvin, jumps back and forth from adult life to adolescence on a very messy and fraught path to self-discovery that forever changes his relationships to everyone in his life, it makes sense that Finn subverts the usual hallmarks of musical theater songwriting. The parts add up to a greater whole, though he may present it more elliptically than most. Finn’s author note in the script says, “[A] lot of the material was about my learning to write the kind of show songs I want to write.” Should he still call them songs? He could plausibly call them something else, but if we want musical theater to continue to grow as an art form, then our perception of what constitutes a musical theater song needs to adapt accordingly.

In graduate school, our department head told our class that a well-written musical theater song serves as a writing team’s calling card. It represents the authors’ collective personality, talent, and worldview all in a neat little three-minute package. It whets listeners’ appetites for more songs and, if you’re lucky, for your entire musical; therefore, there’s potentially an awful lot riding on every single song one presents in public. (No pressure, though!) Out in the real world, I have indeed found it productive to prepare individual songs for concerts. Ideally it opens up dialogue for future collaborations with new artists and yields subsequent performances. But carrying the professorial advice one step further, a song within a larger theatrical work is no longer just a segment of something greater; it must also be its own biosphere ready to be picked up for Famous Broadway Singer X’s next album or concert tour. This runs counter to the idea that a successfully functioning theater song is inextricably woven into its original context. Yet in our current economically dire and overly saturated climate, if we want our voices to be heard and our careers to flourish, our songs must do everything at once. In my own work, I’ve noticed that standalone songs have an unfortunate tendency to pull my attention away from finishing full-length pieces. It is much easier to focus on placing songs in a bunch of concerts than it is to endure the years-long agony of seeing a musical or opera to completion. One way of getting people acquainted with my work is obviously more expedient than the other, but it may be detrimental in the long term as the bigger unfinished projects continue to loom. Say I do pique people’s interest with the songs—what more will I have to offer after that?

I have no background in pop songwriting, but I once had an opportunity to submit a song to Celine Dion’s A&R team, so I tried it. During a public review of the finalists’ (of which I was not one) work, a panelist advised, “No one’s looking for track #9 for the album anymore. Every song has to be track #1.” I worry that this model applies to musical theater songs now, too. Is the pendulum swinging back the other way? Are we returning to a time when our songs must function as pop songs in order to survive, even though the genre has come so very far since the days when musical theater composers dominated the airwaves? Only a handful of songs from In Trousers work well in isolation and none of them would be #1s, but musical theater is much better off for their existence. For all the day-to-day aggravation it entails, I still hope we can continue to confuse iTunes and not placate it.

If the Medium Is the Message, Then Who Should Sing It?

Photo of a dimly lit empty stage.

Photo by Max Wolfe. (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.)

Composers of new music theater depend on singers to bring their characters to life. From conception to casting, we often face a difficult choice: who should be performing this material? As the stylistic divide between contemporary opera and musical theater continues to widen, how do we who write crossover material manage to avoid compromising our original intentions? Why is it so challenging to find the right singers to fit the bill, and is there value in writing for and/or casting singers who specialize in the “wrong” style as dictated by the form?

Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom was that classical training was the best foundation for all styles of singing, but that no longer seems to be the case as “legit” singing has fallen out of fashion in new musical theater writing. Of course vocal training for classical music and vocal training for musical theater need different foci, to an extent. Each requires meticulous attention to a separate set of performance traditions. American musical theater is mainly in English; opera singers need to master diction in several different languages. Musical theater performers must produce a healthy sound that will serve them for eight performances every week; opera singers must produce a healthy sound that reaches a hall of 4,000 sans amplification. Training programs have grown to address these individual needs, but they seldom cultivate all that musical theater and opera have in common. New York University offers two different voice curricula, one singer-focused at the Steinhardt School, and one actor-focused at Tisch. These programs do not share resources. Last year I had some opera scenes staged at a top conservatory. Students were required to audition with 20th-21st century arias in English, and they were encouraged to have musical theater songs ready as well. I was shocked to find that many of them did not have any English arias, and the only soprano who knew a musical theater song had to run to the school’s library in the middle of the audition to get sheet music for the pianist since it was not officially part of her repertoire.

I have not taken a voice lesson in eons, and I do not pretend to be an authority on the subject. But as I sit on the other side of the audition table now, I am well aware that the current gold standard for contemporary musical theater writing and performance is now this.

(Full disclosure: I am glad that it has spoken to millions around the world, but it is neither my personal preference nor my strength. I feel like people singing in this manner are yelling at me, and as a New Yorker I encounter enough yelling in my daily life as it is.) Thus I have surmised that there is now a vicious cycle at play: since Wicked and other shows written in that style are the plum gigs, it is important to possess the requisite vocal skills to snag them. So the premier training available for musical theater singers skews to that, whether or not it is what the singer’s voice naturally wants to do. Indeed, several singers I know have expressed frustration that, after many years of hard work, they have had to start their training all over again to build a more acceptable and marketable sound for Broadway. It is now possible to belt the high G flat in “If I Loved You” from Carousel and book the job—I have seen this happen.

The unfortunate old maxim endures: opera is all about the music, and musical theater is all about the text, so one demands top-notch musicianship while the other just requires better acting. I believe writers and performers all do themselves a disservice by using this yardstick. It creates stumbling blocks between all of us that don’t need to exist. Here’s one example: once in an opera workshop the conductor called me out for a lack of dynamics and articulations in my score. I couldn’t justify it at the time, and later I realized I’d gotten into a habit of under-articulating because I was so used to anticipating musical theater singers forging ahead fortissimo all the time, regardless of what I’d indicated on the page. I wasn’t communicating properly because I didn’t inherently trust the excellent performers around me. Here’s another: when I recently asked a well-known musical theater actress to play a role in my opera that would utilize her puppetry skills perfectly, she declined mainly because she was intimidated by opera as a whole. I even set about rewriting the part for her, but ultimately it was a missed opportunity to collaborate.

So what happens when we sit down to write with all of this in mind? Musical theater pedagogy guru Jeannette LoVetri talks about “the newer crop of composers who write for their own ears.” In context, she is referring to those who ignore practical technical considerations in favor of impressive vocal lines, and I am definitely not advocating for that. But when it comes to figuring out what timbre is best suited for each role we write, we must be true to our own ears. As the Baker’s Wife sings in Into the Woods, “Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’s Anna Nicole was cast with a mix of opera and theater singers. Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities originally featured an operatic mezzo but later starred Jocelyn B. Smith, who bills herself as a soul singer. Both renditions of “Dwell Where the Dogs Dwell” (which starts here around 3:45) in that piece are equally arresting for completely different reasons. The rules are just not so hard and fast.

As my own opera makes its way through the developmental process and I am repeatedly asked to choose between opera and musical theater singers for the various roles, I continue to answer that question with only a question mark. I think there is something in the disconnect that’s worth exploring, a sort of aesthetic friction that happens when a line obviously steeped in musical theater tradition is sung operatically and vice versa. The more singers I meet in both genres, the more possibilities open up. As long as the dramatic moment allows for the “wrongness,” it’s just one more wrench in the theatrical toolbox to create a heightened world.

It’s a Floor Wax and a Dessert Topping

The operatic war in N. Y., a lithographic print from the 1880s from the archives of the Boston Library, depicting a clash between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera, with Henry E. Abbey, opera singers, conductors, and orchestras; some of the identified figures include Marcella Sembrich, Sofia Scalchi, Galassi, Trebelli, Roberto Stagno, Mirabelli, Campanini, and Col. Mapleson.

The operatic war in N. Y., a lithographic print from the 1880s from the archives of the Boston Library, depicting a clash between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera, with Henry E. Abbey, opera singers, conductors, and orchestras; some of the identified figures include Marcella Sembrich, Sofia Scalchi, Galassi, Trebelli, Roberto Stagno, Mirabelli, Campanini, and Col. Mapleson. (The image is in the public domain and has been made available by the Boston Library on Flickr.)

Every time I encounter an argument about whether Porgy and Bess is a musical or an opera, I am reminded of this.

I won’t rehash any discussions about the technical differences between musicals and operas here. But I am interested in exploring preconceived notions held by those working in both genres and the effect they have on composing for the theater. For example:

Opera is inaccessible, outdated, and made for and by snobs.

A few years ago, I participated in a lab for new music theater. One colleague, who writes musicals exclusively, used “Pompous Mock-Opera” as a tempo marking above a declamatory passage. There was a whole values system inherent in his tempo marking, and the leader of the workshop picked up on it. “Why pompous?” he asked. “Because, you know, it’s opera,” the writer replied.

But wait…

This is an opera. So is this…

And this…

Floor wax? Dessert topping?

A few weeks ago, after hearing some of my songs, a commercial theater producer contacted me and asked what I am working on now. I included an opera on my list. Response: crickets.

Musical theater is full of vapid sentimentality and relentless optimism conveyed by too many jazz hands.

But what about this…

Or this…

Let us also not forget the dark undercurrents in most of the musicals by those great purveyors of cock-eyed optimism, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

This once ran on Broadway, as did this. But both works were billed as operas. Floor wax? Dessert topping?

Yet opera and orchestra musicians continue to groan when I inquire about any scheduled musical theater-oriented performances: Broadway-oriented pops concerts, or even whole musicals on an opera company’s season. Musical theater is ubiquitous in the “serious music” world, yet show tunes are beneath them.

Recently I had a reading of that opera-in-progress, followed by a feedback session with experts for whom I have the utmost respect. There are elements of what we typically think of as musical theater in the piece. Accordingly, I was told that the heroine must not die in the end because: a) a musical requires a redemptive finale; b) it was funny at the beginning and should continue to be funny throughout; c) there are children present onstage and it would no longer be family-friendly. I was extremely confused by these reactions because I have only ever thought of this work as an opera. Has no heroine ever died in an opera? Spoiler alert: it is the children’s chorus who kills her. It is about the dangers of obsession and the fatal effects of a culture of pervasive casual cruelty. It was never meant to be a family-friendly evening. To add to the confusion, I was later told never to mention its musical theater influences while pitching it.

It astonishes me that, a good 80 years after Porgy and Bess opened, these rigid notions about overblown, tragic opera vs. happy, hopeful musical theater endure. (Indeed, a few years ago that very show was retooled to entice an audience more likely to attend Broadway musicals.) There are seemingly endless precedents for “crossover” composing; it is not new or revolutionary to write a piece in one style that constantly nods toward the other. The skill sets for writing musicals and operas differ somewhat, but there is an awful lot of overlap, and the goal is ultimately the same: to provide a rich theatrical experience by presenting a compelling story (which is not to say linear narrative) through vocal/physical performance (song and dance, if you must). The challenges of craft are the same for both, too. It is often lamented that there are no compelling lyrics or libretti today in either arena. (There are as many dreadful examples supporting this complaint as there are magnificent examples refuting it.) And composers of both musicals and operas must strive to write music that is an engine supporting the text rather than obscuring it. History has set the bar very high for all of us, even if that’s not evident in some of what actually makes it to the stage.

Bearing all of this in mind, I’ve noticed that when I sit down to write, a sort of “opera switch” goes on for me. If I’m writing operatic material as opposed to a musical theater song, I suddenly give myself permission to write libretto in free verse, and I’m no longer bound by song form (unless I choose to be) or the often-limited vocal ranges of musical theater singing (more about this in a subsequent post). Unfortunately, I also tend to don this cloak of self-consciousness that says, “This Must Sound Like an Opera.” And when I wear this cloak, I invariably end up tossing out a lot of what I write. Because what does an opera sound like anyway? More high notes? More long notes? More complex rhythms? More repeated text? More tone clusters? More erratic intervals? None of this is remotely helpful. I find that when I write what I think other people expect to hear in an opera, I end up with a wash of notes for notes’ sake and little that illuminates the urgency of the libretto. So I must scrap it and ask instead: Who is the character? What is the moment? Back to the basic Playwriting 101 questions!

There’s a character that shows up very late in my opera, and I struggled for a long time to figure out his sound. He is a goofy, easygoing exterminator who finds himself in the middle of a tightly wound dysfunctional family’s fight. It wasn’t until The Beatles’ “Come Together” popped into my head that I understood what he needed to do. Using that groove as an inspiration, I came up with a silly, funky setting of what originally read as very earnest and straightforward on the page. I’m certainly not saying that ripping off great popular songs is always the solution, and it wasn’t something I ever planned to include. Does it “sound like opera”? Probably not. But it was right for the moment, and it turned out to be one of the more successful arias. People wanted more of him, and more surprising moments like that.

But it’s not only in the writing itself that the divide is evident. Without necessarily meaning to, I have simultaneously established myself as a dark, angry musical theater writer and a kooky, funny opera composer; in order to survive, I know I must find a way to follow both paths. (Contemporary opera is never funny, the experts say, and people are desperate for that to change. Again, I can think of a host of examples pro and con.) But I have been advised to eliminate references to musical theater from my applications for residencies and awards—to hide a significant portion of my education and my body of work for fear of not being taken seriously. (Make no mistake: if I were truly afraid of not being taken seriously, I would never get anything done.) I frequently get mixed up about how I should apply in the first place. Which category do I choose? Composition, where the frame of reference may be George Crumb? Theater, where the frame of reference may be Jonathan Larson? I don’t write like either of those guys. There seems to be no right choice in these situations—I can only continue to second-guess. Heck, there are residencies and awards tailored only to one genre or the other. Where do I focus my limited time and energy in applying for these opportunities to ensure that I can continue composing anything at all?

It would be naïve to ignore the important practical reasons why musicals and operas don’t completely fit under the same roof. Artistic concerns and historical traditions—which are significant—aside, it is also partially a matter of packaging. Producers understand that audiences looking for an opera will have different expectations than those seeking a musical, and they have to signal accordingly, particularly when tickets can cost hundreds of dollars. I only wish that the necessity of proper packaging would not continue to reinforce and deepen our collective need to choose between creating and/or supporting only a floor wax or a dessert topping. The world could use more Shimmer!

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Rachel Peters

Rachel Peters

Composer/librettist Rachel Peters’s operas/musicals/scores for plays/songs have been performed by/at Rhymes With Opera, Hartford Opera Theater, New Georges, Huntington Theatre, Arkansas Rep, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan School of Music, Symphony Space, and cabarets nationwide. Recent commissions include a song cycle for the Walt Whitman Project and short musicals for NYU Steinhardt. Upcoming: The Wild Beast of the Bungalow with Center for Contemporary Opera.